By Nicholas Parsons
Nicholas Parsons is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
Every corner of the Earth suffers from war, contamination, and vast social problems. But there exists one place where these problems have yet to take root: outer space. Over half a century has passed since the very first space flight, and there such issues have not arisen to any significant extent. But in order to prevent problems like conflict, pollution, and property rights battles in space, laws are necessary. The field of space law is currently quite small, but as space travel becomes increasingly prevalent over the coming decades and centuries, regulation will be an exigency in order to maintain diplomatic tranquility and to discourage the suffusion of space junk.
Imagine riding a rocket into orbit, but not an astronaut, as a tourist in a commercial ride. This was once a fantasy, but with the onset of privatized space flight, this has already become a reality.  Some “space tourists” already exist, thanks to the organization known as Space Adventures.  In addition, numerous private companies, including Boeing and SpaceX, are in the midst of developing space vehicles that have the ability to ferry tourists into space. These personal space flights are not without legal ramifications. Even with training, there is a lot of risk involved in flying a rocket filled with just a few passengers. Therefore, in America, companies must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Agency’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, to ensure that all safety requirements are in check.  That said, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the regulatory measures that have been put in place to ensure space is not exploited in any way.
The increasing amount of space flights over the years has revealed a further problem: space junk. According to NASA, there are millions of pieces of debris orbiting the Earth at up to 17,500 miles per hour, the vast majority of which are too small to trac.k  Space debris poses a serious threat to satellites and space ships alike, because even the smallest piece of debris can damage a working machine. International law does not yet regulate the release or retrieval of space debris. However, as part of the five U.N. space treaties which were created from 1967 to 1984, a state that owns an object in space which damages another state’s objects is held liable.  This means that whether for publicly or privately owned objects, there are economic disincentives for a government to field space materials that have the potential to chip or break down.
The question of property in space could cause unimaginable complications if left unregulated. For instance, should countries be able to claim portions of the moon for themselves? This too was dealt with in the international space treaties created several decades ago. According to the “Outer Space Treaty,” nations are not allowed to claim sovereignty over any part of space. Additionally, according to the “Moon Treaty,” resources in space are “the common heritage of mankind.”  Because of the Moon Treaty, there is very little room for countries to explore space and mine resources for themselves.  However, as a benefit of this accord, there is no competition for space resources.
If there were to someday be competition for property in space, then it would be a reasonable step for nations to consider the idea of defenses, or war, in space. However, the U.N. treaties deal with this as well. According to the Outer Space Treaty, “Nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction shall not be placed in orbit or on celestial bodies or stationed in space in any other manner.”  Note, however, that this does not rule out all weapons, only weapons of mass destruction. This could imply that war in space is not entirely out of the question under current agreements.
With the onset of many private space organizations, it can be imagined that many more regulations will need to be put into place in order to prevent externalities, or unforeseen negative consequences for non-actors. One source of a need for legislation is potential adverse climate effects that would occur with a high volume of space flights.  Additionally, judging by the increasing number of space debris crowding Earth’s orbit, it’s apparent that some regulations will need to be made in the future in order to counteract this. As for property in space, if asteroids and the moon are to mined, another treaty will need to be created, or the Outer Space Treaty will need to be improved upon so that the notion of property is more explicit. Lastly, if in the future there are disagreements over property, then there will need to be further regulation of weaponized space technology in order to prevent battles in space or on other planets.
As a society we are captivated by ideas such as traveling beyond light speed through space, voyaging beyond our own galaxy in search of sentient life beyond our planet. We watch television and movies which depict battles and conquest in space, much like our wars on Earth but with far more advanced technologies. Although we have not and may never reach this level of technological development, we will be facing many similar legal and diplomatic problems between the countries of our world, requiring further regulation to prevent pollution and war.
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Photo Credit Flickr User: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
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