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With access for all: space law and the final frontier

Imagine even non-billionaires can travel to the edge of space (and beyond). See yourself vacationing on the moon. Picture your company mining asteroids, or ushering in a new era of space recycling by repurposing the junk that previously orbited Earth.

Major technological advancement is not the only thing needed to make these scenarios a reality. An international framework of shared legal principles is also required to keep space from becoming a new Wild West, lawless and chaotic, unfit for travel, development, or commerce. 

The 1967 outer space treaty (officially, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) established such a framework, creating a solid foundation for the evolution of space law. 

One remarkable feature is its doctrine of universal access.

Per the treaty, “every country, all humans, have freedom of travel and use of outer space, and no country can assert sovereignty or appropriate a celestial body,” says Mark Sundahl, Ph.D., JD, founder/director of CSU’s Global Space Law Center, the only center in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to the field.

This means the moon can never become the 51st state of the union or a new province of China.

The treaty also dictates that space is a place of peace, never of war. “No nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction are permitted to be stationed in orbit,” Sundahl says, and no military bases or installations may be built on the moon or other celestial bodies.

If a country behaves in a way that contravenes this binding treaty, it can be brought before the International Court of Justice. This has never happened, although not because every country always adheres to the treaty’s principles. 

China carried out a clear act of space aggression in 2007 when it shot down one of its own satellites, but instead of taking China to court, the U.S. (and later, India) followed suit, Sundahl says.

Still, the development of space has been largely peaceful, Sundahl says, and over the years, additional agreements have advanced space law in areas like liability (countries are liable for their actions and the actions of their citizens and companies) and the treatment of spacecraft that crash land in a foreign country (personnel must be rescued and returned with the spacecraft to their home country).

Unfortunately, no new international treaty has been ratified since the 1970s. Indeed, the Moon Agreement of 1979 failed to gain a single signatory in part because countries refused to accept international regulation of space mining, Sundahl says.

The field of space law remains vital, though, continuing to evolve primarily via “nonbinding laws, guidelines and best practices” that countries may choose to adopt (or not), Sundahl says.

For the sake of our shared future, we can only hope that nations will come together again in the spirit of the original outer space treaty, ensuring that space benefits all and is owned by none.

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