Yesterday there were two different public statements calling for the international community to either amend or replace the Outer Space Treaty, one an op-ed in the U.S. and the other a statement by the head of Russia’s space agency.
At first glance these announcements seemed hopeful, especially because the op-ed, written by one of the authors of a just released new study [pdf] by a defense-oriented Washington think tank, made part of its focus the need to encourage commercial activities in space.
“The international law of space, centered on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, is outdated and insufficient for a future of space in which economic activity is primary. The international community needs a new foundational space treaty, and the United States should precipitate its negotiation,” the study argues.
James elaborated that the idea would be to craft a more expansive treaty that covers emerging issues like debris mitigation and removal and commercial extraction of resources from the Moon and/or asteroids. That said, she stressed that the US should not abandon the OST — which has been signed by 193 nations — unless and until something new is there to replace it.
Meanwhile, Dmitri Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, made a somewhat similar statement during a joint interview with the head of the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the agency that handles administration for the Outer Space Treaty.
[Rogozin said,] “It should be noted that most of these agreements were concluded in the 1960-70s, and ought to be updated. The space economy will grow rapidly this decade, the number of participants in space activities will multiply, and we need to improve the system of space law and regulation of space traffic,” he said in an interview published by the UNOOSA to mark the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight on Monday.
The timing of both stories, on the same day, suggests that international governments are finally beginning to realize what I have been saying now for years, that the Outer Space Treaty is outdated and detrimental to the development of a robust space economy. It outlaws any nation from establishing their sovereignty and laws at any space colony, which in turn prevents them from establishing a legal framework for protecting the rights of their citizens or businesses.
These stories thus suggest that the international community is now gearing up for the major years-long political negotiation required to rewrite or replace that treaty.
A closer look at the think tank’s report however strongly suggests that these governmental negotiations to create a new Outer Space Treaty are not likely to do much to free businesses and citizens in space from the strong control of governments. For example, as noted in the article in the first link above,
the study says that the US should push for expanding the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to space, “or creating an ICAO-like organization for space activity.” Interestingly, this very idea was put forward more than a decade ago by a group of scientists and academics, spearheaded by the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), but was rejected by the US — which traditionally has not wanted to create new international legal structures.
Moreover, in the study’s final recommendations, it clearly supports the continuation of the treaty’s prohibition by any nation of establishing its sovereignty in space, even in a limited manner, and actually recommends expanding that prohibition. It recommends that any new treaty
Contain the same ideal of non-appropriation of entire celestial bodies as in the 1967 treaty (that prohibits the establishment of sovereignty over the Moon or any other celestial bodies), but it ought to be clarified so as not to interfere with the placement of peaceful installations on these bodies or prohibit resource extraction. Moreover, the 1967 treaty was correct to rule out appropriation of celestial bodies, but this new treaty must go further by prohibiting the seizure and exclusion of important orbital zones, such as the Lagrange points, while allowing for legitimate safety zones.
In the end this means that any legal framework in any colony in space will not be based on U.S. law, but on a negotiated compromise with authoritarian nations like Russia and China. O joy!
And while the report is strongly in favor of private enterprise in space, it always insists that such enterprises must operate with the government’s priorities in mind, not their own.
There sadly no longer appears to be in our American government any advocates for freedom and liberty. Instead, our community of government now advocates the traditional fascist approach, whereby private enterprise is allowed to exist, but only if it serves the needs of government. Those needs might have good intentions, but they still remain solely the government’s, not the dreams of the free citizens of the nation.
Still, the report does carry a kernel of hope. It boldly calls for a new Outer Space Treaty by the middle of this century, and does so recognizing the present treaty’s serious limitations and flaws. If the right pressure is exerted on the government by the American people in the coming decades, a new treaty might actually be written to benefit freedom and the rights of every human being. The window for this opportunity is now opening. I wonder if America will be up to this challenge.