This Jan. 31, 2021 image provided by bluShift Aerospace shows an unmanned rocket lifting off in a test run in Limestone, Maine. It was the first commercial rocket launch in Maine history. Credit: The Knack Factory/bluShift Aerospace via AP

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Josh Mangin is a doctoral student at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Maine is entering the new space race! In April of 2022, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law the creation of the Maine Space Corporation, an initiative to help foster Maine as a national and international authority in the new space economy — a term to define the growing commercialization of outer space. The mission of the Maine Space Corporation is to foster collaboration between state and private industries with the current focus on building new launch sites, creating educational initiatives to prepare students to enter space industries, and developing innovative new products. Therefore, Maine has a fantastic opportunity to be a global leader in facilitating and conducting ethical, sustainable, and responsible space exploration.

On the surface, it seems a little shocking that Maine, one of the most rural states in the country, is passing legislation to grow the new space economy. However, Maine’s geographical location gives strategic and economic benefits in launching small-scale spacecraft using a polar orbit (shooting a rocket over the north pole). This provides an advantageous position that has historically been used for deploying weather monitoring devices, telecommunications satellites, and military technology. In addition, Maine-based businesses are already leading in innovation and sustainable approaches to space exploration, such as bluShift Aerospaces’ near carbon-neutral and non-toxic rocket fuel.

Even with the excitement and hopeful possibility of what the new space economy might bring, there is growing concern that increasing space exploration could lead to a variety of significant social and environmental problems both on Earth and beyond. According to the JustSpace Alliance, examples include exploitation of workers, continued depletion of natural resources both on Earth and in space, possible contamination issues from space microorganisms, military conflict, and even the possibility of discovering and interacting with sentient extraterrestrial life.

We are currently facing a problem of space debris. Space debris consists of a variety of metal, plastic, and other materials (including human waste), which poses a risk for rockets traveling into space. A single piece of space junk has the potential to travel up to an estimated 17,500 miles per hour during its orbit around the Earth. Even at that speed a tiny paint chip could penetrate the fuselage of a space rocket causing immense damage. As the amount of space debris continues to grow, the dangers and risk increases, to a point that launching a rocket into space from Earth may not be feasible due to the risk of space debris impact.

Fortunately, it seems that the question of sustainability and addressing issues such as space debris already is a conversation within the state. This November, the Maine Space Conference will be held to discuss a variety of topics such as innovation, sustainability, and educating the future generations to enter Maine’s space economy.

In addition to Maine being an innovative state for space exploration, we also are a state that is growing a reputation in being experts in ethics education. Recently, the Maine Regulatory Training Center (MeRTEC), at the University of Southern Maine received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop, implement, and refine an innovative ethics education course geared toward science majors. It is possible that these students will enter the new-space economy, which again, could help Maine be a leader in promoting and practicing ethics within the new-space economy.

As Maine companies continue to expand into space so does the possibility of significant leadership challenges and ethical issues. Therefore, to address these issues, the state of Maine will need effective and innovative ethical leadership development programs, expansion of comprehensive regulations and oversight, and the fostering of cultures of compliance within the new-space economy industries.