It just got a whole lot easier for private companies to launch satellites, rovers, and spacecrafts, and pursue future industries like asteroid mining. The catch? The U.S. is completely ignoring what’s outlined in a 51-year-old treaty designed to keep space peaceful and war-free.
The Space Commerce Free Enterprise Bill, which passed the House of Representatives yesterday, works off the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States and dozens of other countries signed in 1967 and serves as a basic framework for keeping space safe and accessible for every country. Countries can’t own property on behalf of their own nation, and they’re liable for any private activity from their country. But the U.S.’s new bill won’t apply every part of the Outer Space Treaty to private companies. In other words, the U.S. doesn’t believe that it’s liable for activities of private space companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin.
The bill also bundles almost all space mission approvals under one roof, the Office of Space Commerce, to try and encourage as many companies as possible to launch objects into space. The office would be in charge of everything from a theoretical asteroid mining industry to private space stations, which have been proposed as tourist attractions by companies like Blue Origin.
So it’s likely that other countries, um, won’t exactly be thrilled about the U.S. disregarding the first major peacemaking treaty for activity in outer space. According to an email to The Outline, Mike Listner, the founder of the private space policy consulting firm Space Law & Policy Solutions, other countries may also be tempted to have a similar disregard for the rules.
“The method used by the bill to permit private space activities could create some unfavorable interpretation of international law—and set a bad example for other nations who are enacting private space activities,” Listner said.
It’s also not clear that the Office of Commercial Space would have strict guidelines in place for enforcing the Outer Space Treaty for private companies. The treaty also states that countries can’t launch or test “nuclear weapons” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Companies only need to say they don’t plan on bringing or using a nuclear weapon or weapon of mass destruction in space, and there are no guidelines in place for evaluating these claims.
Military companies like Boeing are already looking to expand into space, and Trump has expressed interest in a “Space Force.” It seems less likely than ever that the U.S. respects the idea of space as a war-free commons.
“The main criticism I have of the Bill is that [its regulation] is about as ‘light touch’ as you could possibly get, almost to the point of being ‘no touch,’” Brian Weeden, the Director of Program Planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Outline in an email. Weeden said that the State Department should probably be assessing whether a company really has peaceful intentions or not. Instead, the responsibility falls under the Office of Space Commerce, which is under the Department of Commerce—a government agency with a reputation for having a lax stance toward regulation.
But Weeden said that the Office of Commercial Space is incredibly small: just 8 people work there. And although the Act proposes a big funding increase—from $2 million annually to $5 million—it’s unclear if the office will have the resources to keep up with the influx of applications that the Trump administration is explicitly encouraging.
“[The bill] doesn't really address the resources that will be necessary for Commerce to properly do this new job,” Weeden said.
Still, private companies will probably love this bill. Weeden said that placing most approvals under one roof will make it easier for these companies to figure out how to get their missions approved. And theoretically, the success of private space companies could help the U.S. economy.
According to Brendan Cunningham, an assistant professor of economics for Eastern Connecticut State University who has written about commercial space, it’s also important to consider that in order for the U.S. economy to actually benefit from commercial space activity, we’d have to use space efficiently. But Cunningham said in an email that the bill fails to consider efficiency at all.
“Commons resources are susceptible to overuse and degradation—one example is overfishing,” Cunningham said in an email to The Outline. “Hazardous debris environment and the risk of [space trash collisions] indicate that space is succumbing to this pattern.”
It’s not exactly surprising that the U.S. is moving toward deregulating outer space—a de facto arena for soft nationalistic power. Space offers a way to acquire information (like weather, GPS, or national security data) or practice ownership over some small slice of valuable space real estate. Basically, whether it’s military satellites or private space tourism, anything that the U.S. launches into space has value, and the country has made it clear that these corporate interests take priority over the idea that outer space should serve as a commons for all of humanity.
And the U.S. is far from alone in this incentive. Australia just created its first space agency, whose explicit goal is to promote private companies. The UK is investing tremendous resources toward growing its domestic space program since the Brexit vote (with limited success). France, Japan, Russia, and China also want in.