If you picked up a hard copy of our Dec. 23 issue you might have spotted a mid-section top six called Private Space that recapped a possible conflict between a piece of legislation passed by U.S. Congress in late November and a 1967 U.N treaty.
The legislation is called The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act. As described in this Washington Post commentary, The SPACE Act is designed to “recognize and promote the rights of U.S. companies to engage in the exploration and extraction of space resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies.”
Critics of the bill were quick to refer to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which bans all claims of national appropriation in space. The treaty, which the U.S. is a signatory to, is based on the guiding principle that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all [humanity].”
That principle is very much in keeping with the core values of the U.N. which generally champions fairness and equality in a global context. It even fits nicely within the counter-culture ethos that was alive in the 1960s.
We live in a different world these days, of course. Global expressions of human well-being are decidedly out of fashion. Instead, neoliberalism is the dominant political philosophy, and we obsess over ways to monetize/commercialize practically everything.
Proponents of The SPACE Act argue that it doesn’t contravene the U.N. treaty. The validity you attach to that argument depends on your enthusiasm for semantic nitpicking. As the Washington Post author notes, the treaty refers to claims of “national appropriation”. Back in the 1960s, because of the costs and level of technology involved, space exploration was largely a state enterprise. Now, private enterprise is much more active in space, and the bill’s backers maintain that because the U.S. isn’t claiming sovereignty over any extraterrestrial body, the bill doesn’t contravene the U.N. treaty.
One analogy that’s made refers to the world’s oceans. Outside of coastal waters, no nation can claim sovereignty over them. Yet when a trawler catches fish in international waters, it has the right of ownership to its catch.
Corporations are creatures of the state, so I’m not so sure that the distinction the U.S. is drawing is necessarily legitimate. And the “ocean” analogy is a little problematic too, as it raises the spectre of the type of free-for-all that we’ve witnessed with giant dragnet trawlers depleting stocks from formerly rich fishing grounds.
This issue is still a little bit in the realm of science fiction. But private corporations such as SpaceX, Planetary Resources and Bigelow Aerospace/Boeing are investing in space research and technology, and various space missions have been undertaken to survey asteroids and comets.
One corporation called Moon Express has ambitious plans to locate deposits of ice water and valuable elements such as platinum and helium-3 on the Moon. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be used to make rocket fuel. Because the Moon’s gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth’s, that would cut the cost of space launches significantly, which would heighten the economic viability of missions to Mars and the asteroid belt.
Whether that future will unfold under the parameters of The SPACE Act or The Outer Space Treaty is still to be determined.