Space Laws


Written by Kieron Monks
26 Tuesday 26th January 2010

The rainforests have been sold, much of the oceans too. Oil companies are negotiating the destruction of Antarctica to plunder the fuel reserves below. But no need to stop there, as increasingly it seems the next stop for the all-consuming corporate road show is the untapped resources of outer space.

We've been here before of course. Go back 50 years and the whole world was in on it, watching with wide eyes as Russia and the USA jousted for supremacy. But then the Cold War died down and we all seemed to lose interest in the space race. Cut to 2001 when the American tycoon Dennis Tito spent $20 million on a week aboard the International Space Station. Other moguls followed suit and suddenly there was a brand new race, this time with multinational CEOs leading the charge rather than nations. As the mega rich rushed to sign up for these trips, so the even richer rushed to provide the service. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures Inc. have fast-tracked commercial space projects - so much so that Branson hopes to have sent 200 eager consumers into orbit by 2011.

Design for Branson's space port

But there is something disturbing about the ease with which these plans come to fruition. What is there to stop corporations buying and selling bits of the galaxy? Who will own the moon and the stars a few years from now? Perhaps the final frontier has become like the old west - lawless and destined to be run by (corporate) bandits. Concerned, we called up Tanja Masson-Zwaan, deputy president of the International Institute of Space Law, the body which provides the legal framework for all space enterprise; "Parts of space will not be privately owned," she re-assured me. "There is a lot of misinformation out there that you can buy a star or a piece of the moon. Right now we are drafting a formal statement to say that the 1967 Space Treaty is still in effect. Celestial resources are the province of mankind and can never be subject to anyone's sovereignty."

But is it not a concern that corporations might try to exploit space as they see fit? Tanja thinks not; "Nation states need the co-operation of private entities as they have far greater financial resources. Whatever actions they take to travel, build hotels etc. there is always a link with their nations, who take overall responsibility. States will license and supervise as they see fit." But would any state really stand in the way of such potentially lucrative projects? "The general attitude is to avoid regulatory overkill. With space tourism there won't be uniform rules for training standards. If people know the risks and still go, that's their choice. We will have the same loose regulation as in the early days of the aviation industry."

Fitness aboard the Galactic Suite

Permission to travel or colonise parts of space seems like a mere formality. All that is required is the approval of a state liable to make huge profits from the enterprise. All around the world governments are falling over themselves to commission space ports and ships for commercial use. The new Galactic Suite hotel is a case in point. The project is bankrolled by investors from Japan, the USA and Spain and will house six people at a time. Critics say the hardware and technology is unproven, but the lure of tourists paying $10 million a week is proof enough for avaricious authorities.


Masson-Zwaan suggests it will be equally straightforward to build on the moon, but with provisos. "The international community will stop anything that damages the environment. You will not be able to build on Neil Armstrong's footprints or have giant, ugly advertising billboards. No structure will have a claim on the land underneath it. States will work together to manage the resources we can afford to use. To take a fish from the sea or a mineral from an asteroid is no problem, the environment can afford it. The authorities will take a position on what needs to be preserved." Hmmm... cold comfort in the wake of the Heathrow scandal. It is hard to believe that kind of conscientious thinking will triumph over short term gain. When has such commonsense ever prevailed on Earth?

More worrying still is the recent increase of military presence in space. The treaty of 1967, signed by every developed nation, prohibits the storage of WMDs in space. Yet the stockpile of smaller arms is growing. The presence of innumerable spy satellites is a source of constant international tension. The Chinese recently shot down one of their own satellites in a way that added 20 percent to the dangerous space debris that surrounds the Earth. It was believed to have been a show of strength and America responded in kind by blowing up one of their own. "Showing muscle," as Masson-Zwaan puts it. Then, last week satellites from Russia and the US were destroyed in a collision that underlined the danger of such debris. This was the first satellite collision in history.

Armstrong's moon landing

Furthermore there is the environmental cost of sending rockets into space. Masson-Zwaan doesn't seem too concerned. "It took a century for civil aviation to begin to manage its emissions. It's important to give the new industry a chance to flourish without severe restrictions. Perhaps tourists will pay a fee to help offset the damage. But make no mistake, space tourism will take off, in a big way. It has captured the popular imagination like in the 1960s when people were glued to their TVs for the moon landing. Also, there are enough rich people to make it realistic and the cost is coming down. $20 million for the first man in space, people will pay $200,000 for Virgin Galactic - maybe in a year another zero will come off. Man will always find a way to push through his frontiers".

Branson with prototype

Another exciting new era of space exploration is upon us, but one that is fraught with risk. With governments led by private enterprise, it is not hard to envisage a large scale game of pass-the-buck should things go wrong. Liable to stir up international tensions, environmental fears and corporate greed, the consequences of this new frontier are unpredictable.

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