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Capitalism in space: The Trump administration yesterday released the guidelines it will require any international or private partner to follow if they wish to participate in its Artemis lunar and planetary manned program.
- the requirement that all activities be conducted for peaceful purposes
- the requirement that everyone design equipment for interoperability and to international standards
- the requirement that everyone take reasonable steps possible to render assistance to astronauts in distress
- the requirement that everyone publicly register anything they launch
- the requirement that everyone release their scientific data publicly
- the requirement that all parties take actions to mitigate space junk
The remaining four principles appear designed to bend the Outer Space Treaty in the direction of allowing countries and companies to have some control over the territories they occupy in space.
First, there is the demand that all partners respect the location and operations of any nation or company, and agree to delineate these into ‘Safety Zones’, which all other partners will then honor. In a sense, this is the Trump administration’s attempt to bypass the Outer Space Treaty’s second article, which outlaws the claiming of any territory in space. “We aren’t claiming anything, but if we establish a base we expect others to honor the territory we occupy.”
Second the accords reiterate in a very vague way the right of future nations and companies to own the resources they extract and utilize, though here the accords seem to back away from the early April Trump administration executive order, stating that any resources mined by U.S. citizens would be considered their private property. Instead, this new principle will be based on articles 2, 6, and 11 of the Outer Space Treaty, suggesting that U.S. law will not apply, and that private ownership of those resources will remain ill-defined.
Third, the accords demand that all partners commit to protecting the historic sites on other worlds, such as the Apollo landing sites.
Finally, the accords expect all partners to publicly outline in detail their own space policies and plans in a transparent manner. This principle, while appearing to align with the general sense of the Outer Space Treaty, puts far more pressure than required by the treaty on authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, who are not transparent and try to keep as much of what they plan to do and eventually accomplish as secret as possible.
Overall these accords appear at first glance to be somewhat disappointing, especially the principle on resource extraction. It seems the Trump administration with its April executive order had been trying, as have every past administration and numerous treaty signatories, to find a way around the treaty’s restriction against claiming sovereignty and establishing our laws on any territory in space. They have apparently discovered, as have every past administration and numerous treaty signatories, that they can’t get around it.
A closer look however suggests that the Trump administration is attempting a very subtle end-around of these restrictions. First, they are advocating that the territory of any established base be declared a “safety zone”, which is just a different way of saying the base-operator will own it. Second, they reiterate that resource extraction will in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty clauses that require each nation to regulate the actions of its citizens in space (Article 6). Under this article, the U.S. can now tell its citizens you will, according to our laws, own what you mine.
The result? U.S. citizens and companies will know that U.S. law will apply to their efforts in space, which will likely make it easier for them to obtain investment capital and later make real profits by what they achieve.
I am not sure this end-around will work, but I give the Trump administration kudos for trying it. They are definitely putting pressure on other nations with their demand that safety zones be respected. This requirement is really plain common sense, but by bluntly declaring it the administration is forcing other nations to face its reality.
If it does work I expect space exploration will be begin to blossom, as the administration is laying the legal groundwork for protecting private investment.
If it doesn’t work, we will either have to accept the fact that private property law will not apply in space and that Americans in space will be second-class citizens with none of the rights and legal protections that Americans expect, or we will have to get out of the Outer Space Treaty or force a major revision.
The Trump administration at least appears to be making an effort to deal with it.