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Legalities of Private Space Exploration and Settlement Probed at Future Tense Event

Masha Abarinova



WASHINGTON, July 11, 2019- As world actors ponder about human expansion into outer space, the issue that most frequently comes up is how to foster innovation while avoiding history’s past mistakes with nation-building.

Human settlement in space is not going to be a “do-over” of our colonial experience, said Andrés Martinez, editorial director at Future Tense, at New America on Wednesday.

Most people think of space settlement as a futuristic enterprise, said Bina Venkataraman, fellow at Future Tense. In their imagination of space communities, she said, they are not looking and learning about issues of governance on our own planet.

Venkataraman said that there is growing concern about the lack of ownership of common resources in space. These commons can potentially be exploited as they cannot be monitored by national jurisdictions.

Although space is an area without sovereignty, that doesn’t mean there can be no property rights, said Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute.

We want to try and give individuals and companies a chance to explore innovation, he said. However, they should still be liable for that property as space is “not an area without law.”

Behind the structure of the International Space Station, there exists an agreement with a code of conduct between nations. However, Hertzfeld said, treaties between nations are not self-enforcing.

There was also discussion about a possible replacement for the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nations from appropriating celestial bodies for colonial and military purposes.

When the treaty was signed in 1967, there was no conceivable capability for further space exploration, said Yuliya Panfil, director of the New America Future of Property Rights program. It seemed inconceivable that private companies like SpaceX could finance such projects.

The first actors able to establish enterprise in space will have a “disproportionate” amount of say in how the area is going to be governed, she said.

Hertzfeld cautioned about declaring outer space as a “global commons” for all, as we are unlikely to have a government authority in space for “a while.”

With so many interests implicated, said Panfil, it is important that the government, private companies as well as civil society have a “seat at a table” to make critical decisions about future space exploration.

(Photo by Masha Abarinova.)


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