Outer space: ‘For everyone, for no-one’
Should anyone own space? Fifty years ago the Outer Space Treaty was signed, banning countries from owning parts of space. But as companies eye up the galaxy’s minerals, do we need a new law?
“It's a great honour and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity, and men with a vision for the future.”
Neil Armstrong spoke these words to President Richard Nixon from the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. As Nixon said, “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”
Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969, but Armstrong and Nixon’s message of internationalism reflected an agreement that was signed almost exactly 50 years ago: the Outer Space Treaty. It formed a sharp contrast with the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union, which was defined by competitive spirit and aimed to boost patriotism at home.
The treaty drew up a list of principles for what nations can or cannot do in space. Most notably, it forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet, and limits the use of space to peaceful purposes. No weapons can be placed in orbit or space.
Nations also cannot claim an asteroid as theirs and the cosmos should be open for every country to explore. The treaty has been called “the most important and most fundamental source of international space law”.
But the space race never really took off as expected. Man has not visited the Moon for 45 years, and public appetite for government money to be spent on space travel has waned.
Now it is private companies that look most likely to herald a new space age. But the Outer Space Treaty makes no mention of whether a company can own part of the cosmos.
In May, these commercial space companies recommended that the treaty should be updated to suit their needs. “There is a strong case for revisiting the Outer Space Treaty to bring it up to date,” argued Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science at Birkbeck College, London.
As Earth’s resources become scarcer, some believe it would be more effective to allow companies to own areas of space. Would this be a good idea?
The private space
This would be a “new hope for humanity”, writes Amica Graber in The Huffington Post. Our experience on Earth shows us that private companies and individuals are more adept at pushing technological advances than any messy, idealistic league of nations. Why not allow Elon Musk to do what he wants with a few square miles of the Moon?
Others believe that any creeping privatisation of space would be a disaster. As Taylor Dinerman writes in The Wall Street Journal, “Entrepreneurial companies have consistently over-promised and under-delivered.” Such a move would betray the principles of Armstrong, Aldrin and Gagarin. Space is not ours to own.
- Should companies be able to own parts of space?
- Would it be ethical to mine the Moon?
- Design an advertisement encouraging people to come and work on the Moon for a private company.
- Draw up a new space treaty bearing in mind the prospect of private companies wanting to own parts of the cosmos.
Some People Say...
“Ban humans from space. We do enough damage on Earth.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The Outer Space Treaty was signed on October 10th 1967, 50 years ago last week. The treaty prohibits any country from claiming ownership of any part of outer space. But as more and more private companies signal their attempts to return man to the Moon, many believe it is time to update the treaty with private space flight in mind.
- What do we not know?
- Whether a new age of space exploration really is upon us. Governments and private companies have been saying for decades that they intend to put a man on the Moon or on Mars “in the next few years”, but these plans have so far failed to materialise. We do not really know what natural resources exist on the Moon, although the Apollo 11 flight did bring three newly discovered minerals back to Earth.
- Sea of Tranquility
- The site of the Apollo 11 landings was not technically a “sea”, but a “lunar mare”, meaning that it is more of a basin formed by basalt.
- Outer Space Treaty
- Its full name is the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. As of July 2017, 107 countries are parties to the treaty, while another 23 have signed it but have not completed ratification.
- 45 years
- The last manned Moon landing, Apollo 17, took place in 1972 when Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of the USA set foot on the satellite. Cernan died in January of this year.
- Elon Musk
- The owner and founder of SpaceX has announced plans to fly two tourists around the Moon at some point in 2018. The trip will cost $250,000 and the tourists will “travel faster and further into the solar system than anyone before them.”
- Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12th 1961.