Look up. Look way up. What do you see? Planets, stars, asteroids?maybe even the future outlines of space colonies and national borders. It might sound like sci-fi, but technology is steadily bringing space settlement closer to reality. The question is, should we allow corporations to sidestep the rules of the Outer Space Treaty?
If you’ve never heard of it before, rest assured that the Outer Space Treaty isn’t a piece of science fiction. It’s a real document, signed into force way back in 1967. It was an expansion of a previous declaration drafted by, believe it or not, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Yes, Virginia, there really is an office at the UN dedicated to keeping the peace in outer space.
The Treaty, like so many other international agreements, sounds great in theory. Astronauts are considered ?the envoys of mankind,? which effectively means that no nation can use their astronauts to lay claim to space property. Their space job is to represent humankind, not a specific country. As well, no one’s supposed to pollute outer space or celestial bodies; the universe will only be explored and used ?for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind?; and celestial bodies will ?be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.?
And the Moon Agreement, drawn up in 1979, gets even more specific about the idea of owning outer space. As NBC News notes, the agreement ?bars private ownership of extraterrestrial property in the solar system.?
All very easy to agree to when there’s not much chance of rival nations actually colonizing the moon anytime soon. But as sci-fi theory edges closer to reality, some old-fashioned, Earthly competition has already started, in the form of the Space Settlement Prize Act.
The idea, as the same NBC News article notes, is that even though the Outer Space Treaty prohibits ?its signatories, including the United States, from asserting sovereignty over other worlds,? that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re barred from recognizing ?claims made by private parties.? In other words, the treaties and agreements have a loophole that might allow someone to build, say, a McDonalds’s on Mars one day.
Some supporters of the Prize Act compare it to private industry opening up the North American West. It was private capitalists, the railroad barons and cattle ranchers, who put their money up and drove expansion and settlement. Similarly, if we want to drive exploration in space, to find new resources and colonize new planets, it will take the same kind of private ambition?investors willing to take both the risks and the payoffs?to get us there.
Governments, in comparison, have neither the funds nor the sense of urgency that corporations and venture capitalists do. Left to political leaders, the settlement of space could end up looking like the Euro crisis: a chronic state of upheaval marked by endless consultations and international bickering.
And even though many corporations have a long history of corruption, mismanagement, and outright abuse (from sweatshops to pollution), so do governments all over the world.
Still, the Outer Space Treaty starts from a point of good intentions?of putting peace and cooperation at the very foundation of space settlement and exploration. So as cool as it might be to walk into a Starbucks on Saturn one day, I think I’d rather visit a celestial centre for international cooperation. An impossible idea? Maybe. But just because we haven’t managed peace on Earth doesn’t mean we can’t accomplish it in space. Beam me up, Scotty.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.