With more countries flying to space than ever and a private space race in full swing, the legalities around space and space resources are still very much up in the air. There are currently only a few treaties that guide space activity and they are woefully outdated. So that begs the question – who owns space?
Back in August I did a video about moon mining and how it’s very likely to become a thing and what kind of resources we could find and use there. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. It’s a banger.
But many of the comments touched on a very important issue, which is that we as human beings… suck.
Since the very beginning, we have taken this planet and put lines around it, and then defended those lines with countless human lives.
Sometimes we kill each other to push the line a little further just to make our slice of pie bigger, sometimes out of petty spite and politics but more than any other reason, we’ve fought over resources.
Oil, clean water, fertile land, minerals, gold, if it’s got value, we will find a way to get it. Usually through massive amounts of human suffering.
So yeah, now we’re tiptoeing off of this planet and finding new resources out in space, and it begs the question, how are we going to draw those lines? What comes next? And most importantly, is history about to repeat itself?
All right, so if we’re going to be talking about space resources and lines, let’s just start with the line that divides Earth from space. It’s a line you’ve heard about a lot lately with the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic launches, the Karman Line.
This is usually talked about as sort-of a petty, arbitrary thing, like it’s what determines whether or not you get a pin with astronaut wings, but in the discussion of who owns what in space, it’s actually somewhat consequential.
Consequential… But still arbitrary.
It’s considered the point where our atmosphere “ends” and space begins, and it lies at 100 KM (62 miles) above Mean Sea Level.
But if I may “Well Akshually” myself, the Earth’s atmosphere technically extends way beyond that, as far out as the moon, this is known as the “geocorona”
So yeah, this is just an imaginary line. We consider it the boundary between the disciplines of aeronautics and astronautics.
But it’s also another kind of boundary, at least it was meant to be.
Theodore von Karman, who the line is named after, said (paraphrased) the air above a country for 100km belongs to them, and above 100km is something akin to international waters.
Like you always hear about how a plane has entered another country’s airspace, well here is where that airspace ends. Because there’s no more air. There’s just space.
But yeah, space and the ocean are vastly different obviously but it’s helpful to think of it like that, legally space, meaning the area above the Karman Line, is basically international waters.
Following rules set up in the 60’s via the International Space Treaty, planets, satellites, and asteroids are claimed as neutral or Common Heritage, that they belong to all peoples of Earth.
Which is a beautiful sentiment. Almost Star Trekkien. Star Trek-ish? Of course Star Trek also had the Eugenics wars taking place in 1992 so…
The treaty also prevents the use of nukes or weapons in space, which is being tested quite a bit lately.
But the point of The Outer Space Treaty was, if we are going to space, we are going to space as a species, together. No nationalism in space.
And this is a rule we have always abided by.
Except… you know… Always.
But let’s talk for a second about Common Heritage. Common Heritage is the idea that there are some things that belong to all of us as a species, and inherently should not be controlled by any particular country.
Like the human genome, for example, the human genome is all of ours, we all own it. No nation or corporation can own the human genome. Doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.
Looking at you 23 & Me…
And there are lots of areas on planet Earth that are considered Common Heritage, including
– International Seabed
– Under the International Seabed
– International waters above & below
– International Airspace
And this was the idea behind the Outer Space Treaty, that space would be categorized as common heritage, something we all own.
But maybe because we’ve learned a lot more about what resources exist out there in space, this idea has been withering away for a while now.
To that end, many parties to the Outer Space Treaty have been trying to alter it, none more so than the good ol’ U S of A.
Because everybody having something? That’s socialist. So we passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act or – because everything has to be an acronym – the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act.
You know, if congress spent half as much time governing as they do creating clever acronyms, we might actually get–
This act paved the way for companies like SpaceX and Boeing to privately ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station and eventually, Boeing might actually do it.
But part of the bill specifically addresses the use of space resources, aiming to quote:
“…promote the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference,”
So of course, the hypercapitalist United States, (US flag) with our hypercapitalist president (Pic of Trump), is breaking with international Common Heritage treaties.
Oh, actually it was this hypercapitalist president. It was signed in 2015.
To be fair, there was more to that quote from the bill:
“…promote the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference, in accordance with the international obligations of the United States and subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the Federal Government.”
So, technically these private companies should be acting under the auspices of the international treaty but… some companies were working on this before the SPACE Act was signed.
One of those corporations is Moon Express, which has the simple mission of mining as much water on the moon as possible and selling it.
Bob Richards who owns Moon Express referred to water as the “oil of the solar system” and he’s not wrong. We’ve talked about this in various videos but water can be used not just for drinking but also fuel and oxygen.
In the far future as we expand into the solar system, the ownership of those water compounds will be a source of giant amounts of revenue.
Which is why, in 1979, the international space treaty was amended to include a section specifically about the moon.
In the Agreement Governing The Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, set forth by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, it states this about moon resources:
“An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration.”
Article 11 (7) (d)
Now if you think it’s hard to believe that the United States would sign on to this and agree to share moon resources with other countries considering we were the only country that had gotten to the moon, that’s because we didn’t sign it. We are not a party to that treaty.
One way to look at how we’ll probably approach space resources is analogous to the fishing industry.
If you are a shipping vessel you fly your country’s flag and must obey your country’s laws and whatever fish you get, you get to keep.
So Space Law is basically Fish Law. With just a touch of the Homestead Act of 1862.
So space resources are one thing. Space weapons are something else altogether.
First of all, space warfare is still going to take place here on Earth. Should we get into any real squabbles over space resources, we won’t be doing that fighting in space.
It’s just too expensive to fight in outer space (for now).
We can barely get a gallon of water to space cheaply, let alone a moon tank.
Who else wants to see a moon tank?
So I suppose it’s possible that as we get deeper into space resources, the US and the rest of the world will sit at the same table and work out a policy that will bring us all together to work for the common good. That would be nice.
Or we can do our own thing and start drawing invisible lines on regolith just like we’ve done here on Earth, which never really ended well.
Looking at you all the wars ever…
But the trend currently is toward something maybe even messier. And that’s private corporations mining and exploiting space resources.
Then we could get into hyper-megacorporations formed out of a Neo-Manifest Destiny.
Because international law on this kind of thing is still stuck in the Cold War space race. There is no real enforceable legal framework behind this new private space race in terms of resource exploitation.
As we head back to the moon and set our sights on Mars and the asteroid belt, we’ll also be building a legal infrastructure as well. There’s gonna be a LOT of lawsuits going around.
And if lawsuits are what determines the future of space, I’d say Blue Origin’s got a leg up on the rest of the industry.
Seriously, if someone asked me what field of law they should go into, I’d say space law. It’s gonna get crazy in the near future.
By the way, one of the top schools in the world to learn air and space law is the International Institute of Air and Space Law in Leiden, in the Netherlands.
So, who owns space? Nobody… For now. And that’s okay… For now.
But as this major leap forward in space travel continues, and space resource technologies get proven out, it’s going to require some very difficult discussions about just who we’re going to be over the next couple hundred years.
Are we one people, one species? Are we a collection of countries and cultures? Or are we cogs in the wheels of galactic megacorporations? Tell me what you think in the comments below.