Exclusive space chat: 10 takeaways

Former US speaker of the house and 2012 US presidential candidate Newt Gingrich spoke to Delano during an exclusive space chat held at SES in Betzdorf on 23 September Romain Gamba

Former US speaker of the house and 2012 US presidential candidate Newt Gingrich spoke to Delano during an exclusive space chat held at SES in Betzdorf on 23 September Romain Gamba

Delano journalists Natalie A. Gerhardstein and Cordula Schnuer met with former US speaker of the house Newt Gingrich and execs from Nasa, the US Department of Commerce and Breakthrough Initiatives for an exclusive space chat at SES on Wednesday. 

Here are 10 key takeaways. 

"The road to the moon can come through Luxembourg."

Breakthrough Initiatives executive director Pete Worden, also sits on the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) advisory board, said from his perspective he’s been pleased to see how far Luxembourg has come “in just a few years", adding: "We’re beginning to see a huge focus beyond Earth orbit, it’s what some people call blue water space rather than brown water space.”

Mike Gold, Nasa's acting administrator for international and interagency relations, was equally excited about innovations from grand duchy players. "You've got iSpaceBradford, which are creating incredible innovations and rovers for the surface of the moon, and small craft that will contribute to science missions like Dapper." Gold talked about Artemis developments, adding: "That road to the moon can come through Luxembourg."

Commercialisation of space is inevitable.

Kevin O'Connell, director of the office of space commerce at the US Department of Commerce, said, "Government will work with industry, and I think this is the nature of public-private partnerships. But the commercial activities in space are here to stay." Of course, commercialisation will change dramatically when it goes beyond terrestrial transactions...

The first space-to-space transaction will be game-changing.

“Someday, there’s going to be a space-to-space transaction,” Gabriel Swiney of the US Department of State said of what he anticipates for the future in space. “When that happens, when someone cracks that code to make money off in-space commerce, everything opens up.” A transaction that could bypass Earth would be game-changing and even though there is no estimated time of arrival for such technology to be possible, it is inevitable that it will happen. In August, Singapore-based SpaceChain carried out the first Bitcoin transaction using blockchain technology through hardware on the International Space Station. 

Space debris can be an opportunity. 

The ISS this week had to change course to avoid space debris, and Nasa has already warned that space debris is getting worse. But for Gold, there also an opportunity for "innovative, entrepreneurial thinking". O'Connell added there will be some transition in the commerce department over the next few years. "We will heavily leverage commercial capabilities in order to improve sensing of space, do analytics on space debris, and ultimately create information for space operators that allows them to stay safe relative to their own positions or relative to how they cooperate with other space operators. We see Luxembourg already paying attention to this." 

Gold added that it would be in "ESA's interest, in Europe's interest, to contribute more to space, hopefully as quickly as possible, at a level that equals what the US is spending."

US favours soft-touch regulation for commercial operators.

The visit to Luxembourg also provided an opportunity to discuss how best to leverage commercial opportunities. With more operators entering the space industry, keeping space safe will become more complex, O’Connell said. “We think commercial best practices on a voluntary basis is the right way to approach this.” He explained that other countries favour a more “legalistic, top-down approach.” The US is in the process to increasingly move responsibility for the space industry to the Department of Commerce," O’Connell said. He found that Luxembourg was again one step ahead, where a business-minded space agency is located within the economy ministry. 

The space chat organised took place at SES in Betzdorf on 23 September Photo: Romain Gamba/Maison Moderne 

Luxembourg can be a key influencer.

“We hope that Luxembourg, as a key leader in Europe, will help influence overall European policy,” Gold said. The grand duchy became the first country in Europe to adopt a regulatory framework for the space mining industry in 2017. The move generated some controversy since an Outer Space Treaty from the 1960s lays out that no country can lay claim to the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies. Some of that controversy has gone away, said Worden. “Luxembourg has worked very hard to get consensus among all the parties. As a country that isn’t a major superpower, it makes it a lot easier to broker really nice agreements.”

There's robust bipartisan support for Artemis and beyond. 

With the US presidential elections looming, will the results somehow impact space buy-in based on party? No, the space chat participants concurred, because the bigger vision unites. "Americans aren't going into space as Republicans or Democrats, we're going as Americans," Gold said. "The Artemis programme has enjoyed robust bipartisan support, because it makes sense." He cited "historic levels of funding for Nasa...from Congress, from both chambers".

The Space Force is open and transparent about its activities.

Nasa and the US Space Force on 22 September announced they would collaborate on areas including human spaceflight, space policy but also research and planetary defence. And while the UN has raised alarm over possible space wars, Swiney sought to allay concern over the US’s military capacity in space. “Their missions are essentially the same missions that our Air Force and other branches of our armed forces have been doing for years,” Swiney said. Rather than focus on what the US is doing in an “open and transparent way”, Swiney diverted attention to other space actors who “don’t release information about what they’re doing, who hide behind false agreements.”

America wants to lead a broad, diverse coalition of partners.

The US visitors also urged Europe to step up investment in space, not to compete with the US but to collaborate. “America will lead the way to the moon,” Gold said. “But we need to lead what will be the broadest and most diverse coalition in the history of human spaceflight.” Under US president Donald Trump, the US has in many domains moved away from multinationalism, criticising Nato and withdrawing from Unesco and the Paris climate agreement. By working together on space matters, Gold said the US and its allies will be able to set worldwide standards. “The US, Europe, Japan, countries throughout the world need to join together to establish responsible norms of behaviour in space,” Gold said.

There's a spiritual element to space exploration. 

Former US speaker of the house Newt Gingrich, who has long championed an ambitious space vision, including via the Gingrich 360 consultancy, spoke with awe about the changes he'd witnessed during his lifetime. Gingrich spent a stint in Orléons, France, during his childhood, as his father served in the army. To make a phone call abroad back then required visiting a local post office, booking times with a trunk operator. He’s excited about the future. “The biggest reason that I favour the moon and Mars and asteroids is that it will open up for every human being an awareness that the future is open-ended, it’s not limited by this planet… we’re actually just at the beginning of the human race's opportunity, and that that psychological and spiritual moment is the most important thing that will come out of first the colony on the moon and then landing on Mars and then beginning to mine asteroids.”