Rewriting the Legality of Outer Space

Contributing writer Tylar Matsuo ’24 investigates the lack of governance of outer space and emphasizes the need for an equitable legal framework whose future is not determined by billionaires. He urges students to shape regulatory policies through active conversations and electoral pressure.

Tonight, sometime after 8 p.m., the SpaceX Inspiration4 will become the first all-civilian mission to orbit the Earth. Orbiting for three days at a maximum altitude of 360 miles, the four-member crew will far outperform the brief voyages achieved by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin earlier this year.

Amid all these goals, however, this mission will doubtlessly raise further questions about the future of spaceflight and the legal nature of space expedition itself.

Outer space remains subject to relative anarchy. The primary existent treaty governing space flight, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, is so outdated that it essentially makes contemporary space a blank slate onto which existent societal norms and regulations may be copied, rewritten, or discarded entirely. Demonstrating the stark discrepancy between terrestrial and extraterrestrial legal frameworks, the International Space Station represents a cooperative, borderless effort between often rivaling powers, hosting scientists and civilians from a plethora of countries. Additionally, NASA satellites broadcast agricultural and other data for free use by interested parties around the world. The rise of commercial space flight, however, has advanced already existent challenges to this sparsely-governed framework.

Paris Marx recently argued in Jacobin that the visions of Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are exploitative and dystopian. Marx highlights the anti-union, privileged positions held by the two centibillionaires and accuses them of seeking “the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now,” cementing exploitative capitalistic structures into the future of extraterrestrial law.

Marx accuses Musk in particular of pursuing a system of indentured servitude, in which Martian colonists toil under high levels of debt from the cost of a rocket ticket. This vision is made particularly alarming by the open, unlitigated nature of outer space — a giant lump of clay for billionaires to mold.

Billionaires must not be permitted to reshape the entire future of our species. Although Inspiration4 might have a charitable aim, it serves as a stark reminder that we are almost out of time to decide on a future for the cosmos before those with the most financial power do it in our place. Unfortunately, this will prove a complicated process; if we intend to advance space as a borderless forum for everyone, then the citizens of smaller countries (including those without access to space programs) must be at the table.

We also cannot simply copy and paste existent legal structures onto the extraterrestrial environment. To do so would ignore the very real differences between Earth and outer space. On Earth, we do not need to establish a right to 1G of gravitational force, nor the right to a sufficient protection from cosmic radiation, nor do we need to create and regulate expensive infrastructure to provide these things. And we seldom need to worry about entire cities (space stations) getting up and moving to a new location, either. Space is hostile and fluid and will require an entirely new set of legal doctrines to regulate. Even maritime law, often presented as an appropriate framework for extraterrestrial legal systems, would require a considerable amount of adaptation to apply to space.

The project of crafting a just, equitable outer space will fall on our generation, and it is a task that we must not leave to billionaires alone. One of the first and perhaps easiest steps we can take towards this is simply not handing multi-billion dollar bailouts to massive space corporations like Blue Origin. Subsequently, it will be our national imperative to determine how our time and resources should be spent instead. Financing cosmopolitan missions like the aforementioned NASA satellite data sharing programs would be a good start, but we must also make real, meaningful commitments to an accountable extraterrestrial legal system. That can not be done by any one group alone.

To be truly equitable, the laws governing outer space must be the product of cross-border involvement, with participation from the citizens of all nations. This will require national and international conversations, and eventually the passage of new, enforceable treaties. Reaching this objective will be a difficult process, but one that is necessary to the future of humanity in outer space.

As college students, the governance of outer space hardly feels like something we can influence. There is some truth to that: this issue is larger than any of us, our college, or even our countries. Nonetheless, by placing electoral pressure on our national politicians, we can shift budgetary allocations and promote internationalist policies. Perhaps even more importantly, through the simple act of talking about outer space, and, crucially, claiming its legal future as ours to shape, we deny the likes of Bezos, Branson, and Musk the ability to buy out the international dialogue to their own ends. Only through a complacent populace can billionaires aristocratize outer space; whether or not they succeed in obtaining that complacence is up to us.