Application of Ostrom’s Principles for Sustainable Governance of Common-Pool Resources to Near-Earth Orbit


  • Joan Johnson-Freese,

  • Brian Weeden



Near-Earth orbit is a key global resource, hosting assets critical to governments, militaries and commercial entities and providing services for global communications, remote sensing, national and international security, and accurate positioning and timing. It is also an increasingly crowded, congested and contested environment, at risk from both intentional and unintentional activities and events, and threats natural and human-made. Ensuring the long-term sustainability of the space environment is an increasingly recognized need by all users of space. This article considers the viability of principles regarding sustainable common-pool resources (CPRs) established by Elinor Ostrom for space governance. In this initial consideration, we focus specifically on the issues of boundaries, collective choice arrangements and monitoring. Within those contexts, Ostrom’s principles appear most useful for identifying gaps in the current space governance system and mechanisms. Further, while Ostrom provides multiple success stories for her model, they typically include common-pool regimes functioning at a local level, with success stories on a larger scale elusive. Near-Earth orbit is perhaps the largest-scale CPR to consider. Consequently, not only is additional work needed to relate Ostrom’s model specifically to space, but to determine the limits of applicability of Ostrom’s model and other models that should be considered.

Policy Implications

  •  The global commons of outer space, particularly the region where satellites orbit around the Earth, faces a collective action problem of how to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities.
  •  The current governance mechanisms for outer space activities were largely developed during the cold war, and are not sufficient to deal with the collective action problems stemming from the growing number of space actors and users.
  •  Space actors exist with varying levels of capabilities, which complicates defining resource appropriator rights and responsibilities.
  •  Common agreement is needed among space actors on the bounds of the space domain to allow resource appropriators to set the governance limitations, who has the right to make use of it and what governance regime applies.
  •  Existing institutions for debating, creating and modifying space governance regimes fall short of the requirement that most actors affected by the rules can participate in their creation.
  •  Space situational awareness will play a crucial role in monitoring the status of the space commons, adherence to rules and norms, and creating transparency and confidence among space actors.