No longer relegated to the realms of science fiction, outer space has literally become the next and final frontier. It’s becoming a reality where new rules and regulations will be crucial for the governance of what now seems to be a new version of the Wild West.
BBC News reports Sept. 25 that though it seems strange to think about, treating portions of outer space like real estate is going to become a thing. Further, human curiosity paired with the added weight of an increasing raw materials- dependent population will make it ever more important to consider where space exploration, business ethics and politics meet.
The pioneers commandeering new adventures into space differ from those of the old; a family can’t just load up with their belongings into a shuttle and take off to establish a homestead on the moon or on Mars, for example. Of course, NASA does have aspirations to send manned missions to the Red Planet, but it probably won’t be without the help of private space companies.
For years, in the midst of numerous budget cuts to an already struggling space program, NASA astronauts have had to hitch rides to the International Space Station by way of Russia at millions of dollars per seat. This, along with other factors, have made it increasingly impossible for the space program to operate without the help of private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing. In fact, NASA has been given funds by the government to encourage private companies to build spacecraft that can be of service to NASA and to others.
The Outer Space Treaty, or the “outer space constitution,” is a legal document that was activated in 1967 — and the current treaty is quickly becoming out of date The document serves as the foundation for international space law and is backed up by 129 countries who have agreed to the parameters set forth by the treaty. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs makes sure that the principles of the treaty are being upheld. Principles include the prohibition of space ownership by sovereign nation states and maintains that outer space endeavors should be embarked upon for the good of mankind.
The BBC reports that “this treaty has worked so far, but there are some potential pitfalls.” For example, unlike city states and territories, space currently has no defined boundaries. Dr. Jill Stuart, Editor in Chief of Space Policy Journal and visiting academic at the London School of Economics explains:
There is no official definition of outer space, but it’s something on which a United Nations working group is currently consulting member states. I suspect we will settle for a physical demarcation at the Karman Line, which is about 100km up, but it’s also an option to go for a functional definition. This is where laws are defined based on the function of a space object rather than where it is in space.
These demarcation points will provide laws for space tourism. However, the need for revisions in the treaty is becoming apparent as private companies look to exploit resources that can be found in space. For example, in the case of companies wishing to send mining expeditions to the moon: These new developments were not foreseen when the Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967. “International law is ambiguous about private companies setting up mining operations in space. There is a strong case for revisiting the Outer Space Treaty to bring it up to date,” states Ian Crawford, planetary science professor at Birkbeck, University of London.
One of the many things to be considered is the protection of certain lunar landmarks. “For scientific reasons, some areas of the Moon are sites of special scientific interest and should be preserved and protected from commercial activities,” states Crawford. Other factors to consider include considering whether private enterprise benefits the good of all mankind and what happens if Earthlings meet other intelligent life with their own set of space laws.