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To Privatize Infinity and Beyond

By Yaffa Fredrick

UNITED NATIONS—On Oct. 19, the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) convened to discuss the biggest threats facing its community. While the Cuban delegation mentioned fear of the militarization of space and the European Union discussed falling space debris, there was one topic notably absent from the discussion—the commercialization of outer space.

Despite the meteoric rise of private projects like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the committee devoted no time to these individuals’ companies. According to Simonetta De Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space (UNOOSA), private actors are not considered an issue worthy of committee time. “Private entities cannot work outside of the international framework of space law, and under the Outer Space Treaty, states are responsible for the space activities of their nationals.” 

Indeed, Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty clear dictates that “non-governmental entities” require authorization from states that are party to the treaty. Musk and Branson must therefore take their cues from the U.S. government, which is a signatory to the treaties governing the peaceful use of outer space. 

And De Pippo is quick to add that these private actors may actually serve to further the work of UNOOSA, which aims to promote and streamline space-based technology that furthers the Sustainable Development Goals. UNOOSA coordinates between all stakeholders, including commercial entities, to develop the technology needed to address issues such as climate change and disaster-risk reduction. It is, in De Pippo’s words, “a catalyzer of global efforts to use space-based information in monitoring and evaluation” of existing U.N. frameworks.

But not all commercial actors are exploratory or humanitarian-minded. Companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources see huge mining opportunities in outer space—specifically on asteroids, which contain a variety of rare and precious metals. Similarly, other companies are interested in lunar mining. A helium isotope found on the moon could be used to power future nuclear reactors on Earth. However, the Moon Treaty, a corollary to the Outer Space Treaty, explicitly states that the moon and other celestial bodies belong to the entire international community, and not any specific corporate or commercial actor. 

Despite this existing treaty, the U.S. Congress seems to be siding with the mining companies. On May 21 this year, the House of Representatives introduced the Space Act of 2015, which states, “Any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them, which shall be entitled to all property rights to them, consistent with applicable federal law.” Under this law, mining companies could lay claim to any asteroid or celestial body they succeed in reaching and excavating, flagrantly disregarding the Moon Treaty, which has been a governing agreement for over 35 years.

Just this week, the House approved the Senate’s amended version of the Space Act. Even with the Senate’s changes, the core issue regarding companies mining outer space for its vast riches remains fully in tact. As Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) framed it, “This bill encourages the private sector to launch rockets, take risks, and shoot for the stars.”

The problem arises when those companies actually land among those stars. Though mining itself may not be particularly harmful to the safety and security of outer space, the companies behind it appear to be working against COPUOS, whose stated mission is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space. Now, with the help of the American government, these private investors may succeed in their multi-trillion dollar commercial expeditions.

The United States government may not be the only violator of U.N. space treaties. Where there is an investment opportunity, China and Russia may soon follow suit, with India possibly following in the future. In other words, in a short period of time, some of the world’s most powerful players may be warring over a variety of celestial bodies that promise strong material returns.

COPUOS must, in turn, be prepared to address these violations—or at the very least to defend a series of treaties dating back to the mid-1960s. It must hold the United States accountable, making clear to member states and observing non-governmental organizations that such flagrant disregard of existing agreements endangers the security of the international community at large. If COPUOS hesitates, or misses this critical opportunity to respond before President Barack Obama officially signs the Space Act into law, then its task of maintaining a peaceful outer space will soon face its biggest challenge yet: private actors who, with the support of their governments, disregard the role of international organizations in global governance.

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Yaffa Fredrick is managing editor of World Policy Journal. She reports on a variety of political and economic issues at the United Nations.

[Photo courtesy of Scott Cresswell]

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