Space Law

A friend of mine recently asked me if he should be concerned about China’s current attempt to grow biological life in the form of plant seeds on the Moon. I pointed out that although these seeds died a quick death seemingly the result of cold temperatures that had set in, and I summarily dismissed his concerns, upon some further thought, I realized that perhaps I should not have been so hasty in my response.

Part of my response involved a rant about fracking and that we are poisoning Earth’s biosphere, so why should we be surprised if humans wind up poisoning the moon, too? Before anyone points out to me that the seedlings are in a fully enclosed environment and not actually in or on the lunar surface, we all know that it is a matter of time before experiments are made that introduce life into the lunar or martian surfaces. And yes, unsurprisingly I mentioned that these experiments would be more successful if humans finally evolved to the point of adopting Gene Roddenberry’s vision of human-wide cooperation for the betterment of our species. And then, and only then, could humans truly explore and enjoy the fruits of the universe.

But I digress. My hastiness (and New York sarcasm) might have gotten the better of me. And the reason why I am saying this is because Space Law, as all laws do in their applicable fields, will ultimately rule all future discourse on this topic. So let’s take a look at those laws.

Imagine if the USA claimed ownership of and rights to the resources of the Moon after Apollo planted a flag.
Image Credit: NASA

We live in an amazing day and age where things that had been written about in science fiction by futurists such as Jules Verne, Georges Melies, and the aforementioned Gene Roddenberry, are actually coming true. There are a number of start-ups focused on mining asteroids. Private and governmental space exploration companies are gearing up for trips to Mars. And human built spacecraft that have now left the solar system and heading towards interstellar space. These are truly amazing times!

As with everything humans endeavor towards, there are rules and regulations that guide what is allowed. And since space travel is the most complicated undertaking that humanity has ever attempted, one can just imagine that there must be a surfeit of edicts guiding what is, and is not, allowed. A plethora of statutes and guidance. A glut of directives. Right?

Well…how about five, non-binding, non-descriptive United Nations rules, that do not even apply to all countries on Earth? Believe it or not, that’s about all there is. Some individual nations have made their own laws. And there’s some additional guidance issued by the U.N. But the five rules, formally known as ‘The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’ are for all intents and purposes all that there is. And those 5 rules, written in the 1960s, were obviously created well before the envisioning of tremendous achievements such as landing OSIRIS-REx on an asteroid.

So where does that leave us? In 2019 the United States and Russia are no longer the only players, as they were during the beginning of the space race. India, China, and private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, are all racing to explore space and do things never before thought possible. And as my friend suggested to me – do we as a species need to be concerned about unregulated experiments, such as attempting to grow life on a celestial body in our solar system other than Earth? I think we can all agree that the answer is an unquestionable ‘yes’.

It is not a secret that governments, private companies, and humans in general, while often doing lots of good, unfortunately also do not always make decisions that are best for humanity as a whole. Particularly when there is money to be made. The only way to curb bad actors in space, is the same way we do it on Earth – by rules and regulations intended to guide the inevitableness of advanced space exploration towards the benefit of mankind while resulting in the least harm to our solar system and all that exists in it.

The United Nations, individual governments, and private companies are all aware that more comprehensive and binding rules will be needed as technology allows us to push further into the exploration of the universe. Let’s hope that lawmakers get ahead of the curve and recognize the need to pass effective and binding regulation allowing humanity to leave Earth and spread only the best of our species through the universe.