On a warm June day in Vienna, the topic on the table for discussion by international space experts was how to deal with orbital debris, radio frequency interference and solar events that pose threats to space activities upon which the world has come to rely. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space had asked for advice on shaping voluntary guidelines for national regulations on the long-term sustainability of space activities.
A European legal expert wanted greater regulatory weight given to international law and institutions. A Chinese counterpart was not so sure, saying, “We should be careful not to give too much power to bureaucrats as they can stifle the innovation of the private sector.” I agreed with my Chinese colleague.
Balancing the space interests of governments and the private sector has been a U.S. concern since the Space Age began. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union opposed private space activities, calling them “piracy.” The United States supported private enterprise and helped create the first commercial communications satellite company, Comsat. The compromise reached in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the foundation of international space law today. In the United States, private companies can apply for government licenses to operate and launch satellites or return objects from space. The treaty bars claims of national sovereignty over outer space or celestial bodies such as the moon.
A far more global and diverse set of space actors (public, private and even individual) has replaced the original cast of Soviet and U.S. scientists and leaders. Interest by the private sector in mining the moon and asteroids, space tourism, and even private expeditions to the moon and Mars has grown dramatically.
As new human and robotic missions emerge from universities, nongovernmental organizations and industry, nations must rise to the challenge of balancing competing interests. New rules may be needed to operate private facilities in deep space or on the moon. The historic lunar landing sites must be protected. National and international dialogues on space policies will intensify and, if all goes well, launch a new era of space exploration and prosperity.
Scott Pace heads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Earlier, he served as associate administrator at NASA.