Tuesday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty. The Treaty, which entered into force on October 10, 1967, has helped facilitate international cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space.

The anniversary is particularly poignant at a time where we face a new race to space—that of private companies. Companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing are working toward flying astronauts to the space station. SpaceX has also announced plans to take people to Mars. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are also looking to conduct tourist flights. Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable habitats.

The announcement of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in January 2006 laid the groundwork for a commercial space. Public-private partnerships were further promoted under the Obama administration. Upon the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA looked to the commercial sector to fly its astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. In a 2016 op-ed published by CNN, President Obama wrote that U.S. companies own more than a third of the global commercial launch market. “More than 1,000 companies across nearly all 50 states are working on private space initiatives.” Earlier this year, President Trump signed a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA. The bill mandates that NASA cannot acquire space flight services from a foreign entity unless there are no NASA vehicles or U.S. commercial providers available. Further, it directs NASA to look for ways to further promote the private space industry.

Achieving NASA’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s will require infrastructure and resources. Asteroid mining is a way to acquire natural resources from comets, asteroids and minor planetary bodies. The mineral wealth that can be found in the asteroid belt—the region of space between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter—equals roughly 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today. Goldman Sachs recently reported that the amount of platinum in one pass for even a small asteroid could be worth between twenty-five to fifty billion dollars. That is a tremendous amount of resources we could put towards the development of space structure and the generation of rocket fuel without having to get materials from Earth to outer space.

But, is this legal? The Outer Space Treaty holds the exploration and use of outer space “shall be the province of all mankind.” One of its key provisions includes a ban on “national appropriation.” Some parties to the Treaty argue this includes resource extraction and that asteroid mining would be a violation of this provision. Proponents of asteroid mining suggest the ban should be interpreted similarly to the “global commons” status of the world’s oceans. Any nation is allowed to fish, but no nation is allowed to colonize or own any piece of the ocean itself. This is the stance the United States has taken. In 2015, President Obama signed a law authorizing a licensing program for mining and recognizing rights to asteroid-derived resources. This type of national licensing regulation is said to meet the Treaty’s requirement that parties ensure the activities of its citizens are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the Treaty.

It is possible no real progress towards an international framework providing rules for resource use will be made until companies actually begin mining. However, given the positive buzz and resources being put behind space at the moment, it is clear that now is the time for nations to begin discussing the problem.

Barrett Lingle

 

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