The Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars is still fresh in people’s memories, privately-owned companies are ferrying people and supplies into orbit, and NASA continues to work on “the most powerful rocket” it has ever built. But as world governments and private enterprises continue to eye the skies for opportunities, a SXSW panel called “Who on Earth should govern Space” makes clear that the laws dealing with space aren’t evolving as fast as the technology that gets us there.
“People like to think of space as the Wild Wild West — nothing out there, there’s open frontier, we can do whatever we want,” said Michelle Hanlon, president of For All Moonkind, a non-profit devoted to preserving mankind’s cultural heritage in space. “Unfortunately or fortunately, that’s not true at all.”
Hanlon was referring to the Outer Space Treaty, which was developed in 1966 and ratified by over 60 countries in early 1967. Considering the treaty was put into effect a full two years before mankind landed on the moon, it’s little surprise that the document is heavy on broad principles, but light on specifics. Among its greatest hits: outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States, States should avoid harmful contamination of space, celestial bodies shall only be used for peaceful purposes, and perhaps most importantly, the assertion that outer space isn’t subject to claims of sovereignty by Earth-bound governments.
The treaty went a long way in enshrining a set of lofty values dictating how we approach and use outer space, but things have changed dramatically in the last 54 years. “We’re looking at this moment in human history where we’re thinking ‘Oh, well we want to do so much in space, but we can’t own anything,’” Hanlon said. “So we really need to think about how we’re going to conceive of property in space, mining rights in space.”
The idea of mining asteroids and other celestial bodies for their resources seemed to peak in the mid-2010s, when companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources regularly made headlines. (By 2016, the latter had managed to raise a cool $50 million in funding for their space mining efforts, including investments from former Google CEO Larry Page and former Alphabet/Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.) These days, enthusiasm has waned somewhat, though Dr. John Junkins, interim president of Texas A&M University, said on the panel that mining “and material processing in space will happen someday” and that a legal framework to allow for those activities was necessary.
“The moon is a tremendous resource, and it will be mined before the asteroids are, most likely,” he added.
Defining those property rights and frameworks is one thing, and it will be some time before they can be fully fleshed out. Enforcing those rights — and rights defined by the Outer Space Treaty — is a separate question, and one that hasn’t been fully addressed despite incidents that should warrant it.
Junkins reminded viewers of a day in 2007 when China destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites with a missile, which left behind a hazardous cloud of debris with…