The First Space Colonies Might Be Illegal
Individual agreements will have to be signed to keep commercial space operations legal.
Bigelow habitats Image: NASA
The biggest challenge to getting functioning space hotels and moon colonies might not even be, you know, building them and subsisting in space. Instead, it might be navigating the tricky international legal framework governing off-world ownership.
This week, entrepreneurs and futurists are meeting in Los Angeles to discuss projects to build space colonies (and even entire cities), to create an “orbiting tavern,” and to mine asteroids. With the democratization of space, these are no longer pipe dreams. But most of these ideas come from Americans who have been brought up on the idea of manifest destiny and assume that space is theirs for the taking. Unfortunately, it’s probably not.
“This is not Texas in the oil boom in Texas in the 1880s, it’s not the California Gold Rush,” Rosanna Sattler, a space lawyer who is giving a presentation on the subject at the International Space Development Conference this weekend, told me. “There are already laws and rules in place about what you can do there.”
Chief among them is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which makes it illegal for countries to appropriate the moon or other celestial bodies. That treaty notoriously does not specifically mention private citizens, which has led to people like Dennis Hope, a Nevada-based “real estate agent” selling tracts of land on the moon and claiming the treaty doesn’t apply to him as a private citizen. So far, Hope hasn’t run into much legal trouble, but that’s because he’s basically selling novelty certificates to suckers (no offense). The whole paradigm changes when someone like Bigelow Airspace, who is currently working with NASA, decides to make a private space station or announces plans to put an inflatable on the moon.
“They weren’t thinking about commercial companies when the treaty was passed, but it’s very clear that the [countries] have responsibility for the people and companies who come from their countries,” Sattler said. “It governs private and public endeavors.”
That’s not something that companies who see space as the next capitalist frontier often consider, she said. “These people very often are so much more interested in the technological aspects of things that they ignore the legal ramifications."
But that doesn’t mean that commercial space is inherently doomed. Amending the space treaty isn’t going to be easy, but it also might not even be necessary. Sattler says that there is enough wiggle-room in the language of the treaty that spacefaring nations can sign memoranda of understanding with each other to allow specific commercial activities, a move that would be several orders of magnitude easier to finagle than a whole new international treaty.
Similar deals have already been worked aboard the International Space Station—companies that contract with NASA or another space agency to run experiments aboard the station retain their intellectual property.
While the United States has long been a capitalist society, other countries look at space more as a shared resource—under current international law, any sort of asteroid or resource mining would potentially have to be shared amongst the world.
“Many countries are much more interested in the equitable sharing of resources and land,” Sattler said. “These asteroid mining companies are not going to spend all that money and go to hostile environments to find out that they have to equitably share what they extract.”
Instead, the State Department or some other national body is going to have to strike a deal with other nations—and other nations that want to do this are going to have to strike a deal with us. Considering that Russia just announced plans to have moon bases by 2030 (and potentially plans to extract minerals there) and says it’s done working with the United States in space, that may be a negotiation that requires more than just a rubber stamp.