When President John F Kennedy stood before Rice University on 12 September 1962 and boldly declared that not only would the US be the first country to land on the moon, but they would do it before the end of the decade, he captured the imagination of a generation.
While it would be nearly seven years before Neil Armstrong would set foot on the moon, the legacy of the landing would propel space travel from the realms of fiction to reality. The speech would also lay the foundation for the first space race between the US and USSR, an extension of the political chest-thumping that characterised the Cold War.
Now, with far less rhetoric and fewer headlines to chronicle it, there is a new solar contest underway. But this time, it is not nation states footing the multibillion-dollar bills to send people and packages beyond the atmosphere – it is private companies ushering in a new era for outer space.
Commercial activities in space are not new. In 1962, Telstar 1 was the first satellite to be launched as a commercial venture, by AT&T and Bell Telephone Laboratories. But the rise of billionaire-backed companies reaching for the stars since the dawn of the millennium has brought the issue back to the fore.
Elon Musk and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, as well as Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, have put charismatic entrepreneurs with impressive bankrolls front and centre in pursuit of the skies.
‘We have entrepreneurs funding commercial space ventures and, because of the new procurement system instituted in the US, they have contracts guaranteed by NASA, which permits them to heavily invest,’ says Dr Lesley Jane Smith, professor of international law at Leuphana University and a board member of the International Institute of Space Law.
‘The changes have instituted a system where all of the relevant players are able to put in their bids – whether it’s for the Air Force or transport to the International Space Station. Because of that, we’re seeing huge advances in the US, whereas it’s still taking years to get anything off the ground in Europe.’
At a time when public funding for space activities remains low – particularly in the US – there was fertile ground for those willing to fill the void, though few would have predicted the speed of progression.
‘Companies like SpaceX have proven that private companies can build rockets, deliver payloads to the International Space Station and bring them back. Soon they’re going to be the first private company to take people into space,’ asserts Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive of Planetary Resources.
‘We’re seeing private companies innovate. They’re bringing commercial efficiencies to the table, like SpaceX reusing their rockets. These missions are costing about 20% of the figures from the cheapest government-funded competition.’
Lewicki knows what he is talking about. While now heading his own commercial space venture, Planetary Resources – a company aiming to be the first to mine asteroids – Lewicki is a NASA veteran, who served as the flight director for the Agency’s Mars Exploration Rover missions.
With backing from the likes of Google co-founder Larry Page, and filmmaker James Cameron, as well as Chinese tech giant Tencent and a slew of top-tier venture capital funds, Planetary Resources is well equipped to deal with hurdles between now and 2020, when the company aims to launch its first asteroid-prospecting mission.
But beyond the technical barriers ahead, there are a host of legal issues, which prompted Lewicki to hire his first general counsel earlier this year. Brian Israel joined Planetary Resources in May, departing from the US Department of State, where he worked on space law and the associated international legal frameworks.
‘A lot of the role would be typical for any general counsel working for a private company raising money, but there is an added regulatory layer that comes with being an operator of space vehicles,’ says Israel. ‘Part of what makes the job equally exciting and complex is that we’re doing things which are unprecedented and completely new. A good portion of my role is trying to interpret the international legal framework for outer space – parts of which are now 50 years old – and apply it to what we’re trying to achieve now.’
Space law finds its origins in the late 1950s, when the US and USSR undertook bilateral discussions to agree a framework that would dictate how activities in outer space would be carried out. That led, in 1959, to the creation of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which drafted five key international treaties over the following 20 years, comprising much of what we now know as space law. Arguably, the most important of these was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which still governs much of what takes place in outer space.
‘What made the Outer Space Treaty unique, and why it’s so relevant today, is that it laid down very general principles. It doesn’t attempt to regulate any activity, or directly answer every legal question in connection with outer space. It gives parties the basic building blocks,’ notes Israel.
‘When the Outer Space Treaty was being developed, it was primarily done with peace and security as its objectives, rather than regulating human spaceflight and exploration. It’s a relatively short and straightforward document, founded in principles that all of the negotiating states at the time could agree on,’ adds Chris Johnson, space law adviser at the Secure World Foundation.
The Outer Space Treaty grants rights for the exploration and use of outer space, provided they are ‘carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of mankind’. The principles were designed to ensure space remained a demilitarised zone – essential during the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War – while granting sovereignty of outer space to no single entity or nation.
Private companies are bringing commercial efficiencies to the table. These missions are costing 20% of the figures from the cheapest government-funded competition.
Chris Lewicki – Planetary Resources
‘The provisions of the treaty are very well respected and observed internationally, to the extent that its tenets and principles can be considered as reflecting customary international law,’ says Johnson.
But with commercial space activity happening on a scale previously unseen, how well the principles contained in the Outer Space Treaty and similar pieces of international law will hold up is the subject of debate.
‘When I was working for the US State Department, one of the things we were doing was looking over the horizon at the activities of the private sector, and working with other governments to establish how we would manage these activities within the overall legal framework,’ notes Israel.
‘There have been private space activities for decades now and there are domestic and international laws which provide a regulatory framework for these. Then there are new genres of space activity on the horizon doing things that haven’t been done yet – either by governments or private entities. That is going to raise a number of interesting legal policy and regulatory issues moving forward, which, thankfully, I find great fun!’
Licence to ride
In 2015, the value of the global space economy was $323bn, according to the Space Foundation. But while space is now big business, whether commercial operations would even be allowed was not always a sure thing.
When the international legal framework was taking shape in the 1960s, the then USSR favoured restricting outer space to government enterprises, whereas the US already had a cache of private enterprises ready to progress into space.
‘Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty expressly permits private activities in outer space, but makes the government legally responsible for the activities of their nationals. It places an obligation on the governments to authorise and supervise their nationals’ activities in outer space, to ensure conformity of the Treaty,’ says Israel.
Article VI was a compromise between US and USSR negotiators. But while the hurdle of permitting commercial space activity was cleared before it became a problem, other parts of the Outer Space Treaty still have potential to cause issues for commercial ventures.
While countries and companies alike are barred from making territorial claims in space – something that is universally agreed upon – the exploitation of resources does not find consensus, with states in disagreement about what is permitted under the terms of the Treaty.
Notes Johnson: ‘Taking a restrictive view on Article II, whereby celestial resource use was not permitted, the limits of human space travel become severely inhibited. That’s because all of the resources used would have to come from planet Earth, instead of derived from outer space. If a company like Planetary Resources was to land on an asteroid made up in large part of solid ice, all of the water there – be it for drinking, fuel or anything else – would not be able to be taken.’
Such an interpretation of Article II at present is seemingly at odds with Article I, which permits the freedom to explore and use outer space by all. Both Israel and Johnson express concern that without coming to an interpretation that is harmonious for commercial activities, innovation and future developments in the sector could grind to a halt.
‘When you stifle innovation, particularly as it pertains to outer space, it is detrimental to Article I, because it means these plans and potentials and some of the more deep space missions won’t be funded because they’re not viable,’ says Johnson.
‘One potential solution would be to set up a mining authority, like we have for deep sea exploration. What you have there is an example of how global standards and the international community can come together to come up with workable solutions,’ adds Smith.
‘You also have the added difficulty that outer space remains the domain of nation states – not private entities – and that those states individually bear the responsibility for what happens in outer space, which is a unique structure, legally-speaking.’
The upshot is that the ability to engage with legislators and policymakers will be essential for the long-term viability of companies like Planetary Resources.
‘With a regulatory framework laid out for a very quickly growing and expanding sector, there’s a lot of opportunity for policy engagement. That’s equally true in other countries too, which are either enacting their first national space laws or overhauling them,’ says Israel.
What makes the Outer Space Treaty so relevant today is that it laid down general principles. It doesn’t attempt to answer every legal question. It gives parties the building blocks.
Brian Israel – Planetary Resources
Before Israel joined the company, Planetary Resources was heavily involved in lobbying the US Congress to support the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act – better known as the SPACE Act.
That legislation explicitly granted permission to US entities to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of “space resources”’. But the international community remains divided over whether the SPACE Act runs contrary to obligations imposed on the US under the Outer Space Treaty.
Lobbying, both at a domestic and international level, stands to become increasingly central, particularly as the US is in the process of crafting a framework for supervising non-governmental space activities, while ensuring conformity with the Outer Space Treaty.
‘It is incumbent on Congress to use the 50-year anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty to properly determine our international obligations and ensure that our domestic policy creates an environment that provides certainty for industry while protecting our national security,’ said Senator Ted Cruz, earlier this year.
‘The design and objectives in doing this must not only be to implement the government’s obligations, but do so in a way that is not unduly burdensome on emerging space activities,’ adds Israel.
‘This is particularly relevant when the contours of how the activity will be carried out are not known, which makes it imperative that regulators do not get too far ahead of the technology and lock in standards that are ultimately unworkable.’
Beyond the horizon
As a new era of activity in outer space beckons, the ability for lawmakers to update either the agreements themselves, or how they are subsequently interpreted, stands to be a defining factor in the pace of progress.
‘It’s cheaper than ever to get to space, so as well as companies, you have schools, universities and hobbyists all launching their own small satellites into orbit. That’s going to continue to create a whole host of new legal challenges,’ says Smith.
Central to those concerns is an ongoing effort to regulate space debris – an increasingly pertinent issue for the growing commercial space industry. Space debris ranges in size from spent rocket stages and non-functional satellites, through to paint flakes and fragments eroded from orbiting spacecraft.
‘With more satellites being put into orbit every day, we’re already coming to a point where the tipping point for space debris is coming, and coming very soon,’ says Johnson.
Space debris poses a risk to activity in outer space because it can damage existing satellites and spacecraft and in future could cause launches to become more difficult and costly – even making certain altitudes impossible to use.
‘It’s an issue that the community is well aware of, but isn’t moving as quickly as it should be to rectify the situation. Part of that is determining who is responsible for the debris – particularly if it’s difficult to determine ownership and, subsequently, liability,’ says Johnson.
As we progress further into outer space there are going to be ecological concerns, infrastructural issues and sovereignty considerations that will test the political will of the players involved.
Dr Lesley Jane Smith – Leuphana University
Space debris represents just one issue that will need to be addressed if commercial space activity is to continue to advance. But what that will require, according to those we spoke with, is collective solutions and international co-operation.
‘As we progress further into outer space and it becomes a domain increasingly within reach of everyone – there are going to be ecological concerns, infrastructural issues and sovereignty considerations that will test the political will of the players involved,’ concludes Smith.
‘Stabilising the regulatory frameworks and keeping them aligned in the domestic legislation of the various states will be critical. Although that’s a task which is far easier said than done.’
Chris Lewicki, president and chief executive, Planetary Resources
‘I’ve been captivated by space exploration for as long as I can remember. I studied aerospace engineering at university, with a goal to work for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. They’re responsible for building most of the robots that go out into the solar system.
I started my career at the Laboratory straight out of university, working on the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers. By the time I was 29, I was the flight director of the mission in charge of things when we landed on Mars, operating them for the first six months after landing. I got the opportunity to continue at the Laboratory when the Phoenix Mars Lander confirmed the presence of water ice on the surface of Mars. I ran that mission from start to finish, all five years of it.
Rather than jumping back into another Mars mission, two friends of mine – Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis – reached out to me as they were interested in doing something entrepreneurial with space. Both were looking for the next thing that could accelerate human activity and progress in space. One of the conversations we had was that whenever humans move into unchartered territory, being able to survive is the first imperative, which requires raw materials and resources to build the environments that sustain life. That was the starting point for creating a company – to figure out how we could turn resources in space into something that would help expand all economic activity.
The thesis that we organised the company around was being able to create a gas station in space, so that you can properly utilise all of this very expensive and exotic infrastructure more than once. People have ideas that anything to do with space travel involves pristine, complex machines. But at first, it tends to be the opposite. We’re working towards the first mineral exploration mission of several asteroids to take place in 2020 and when we start recovering resources from asteroids, it’s going to be crude, it’s going to be inefficient. The biggest step is actually starting.
With asteroid mining, what we’re able to achieve is having everything already up there when you need it. We’ll be able to bring water back into Earth’s orbit between Earth and the Moon, which can then be converted to hydrogen and oxygen – a very powerful rocket fuel able to support existing infrastructure in space, like communications, imaging and positioning satellites.
Then there’s the human potential. We have had six people orbiting in a space station now for a decade and a half, but to get 60 or 600 or 6,000 people requires a fundamental transformation in how we do things. We can’t continue to ship supplies from the ground – you’re talking trillions of dollars in launch costs. But if there’s a nearby resource that can fulfil these needs, that is what will allow us to truly move into and settle in space.
Too many people hold the belief that we’re running out of things when we are surrounded by resources. The earth is finite, but the universe is infinite – and now we have access to the technology that can start to make that viewpoint a reality. Shifting from a mindset of scarcity to abundance inspires me. Plus, it’s fun turning science fiction into reality.’
Article VI – Outer Space Treaty
States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.