Monday, December 14, 2015

Why the International Outer Space Treaty needs to go

But, isn't it about protecting space? And...

Okay, let's start by explaining the treaty, which was signed in 1967 to prevent the first person who landed on the moon from claiming it. In 1969, Apollo 11 landed men on the moon, and without the treaty they could have then said, per maritime tradition, that the moon belonged to the United States. With me so far?

The Outer Space Treaty is the basic framework of space law. 104 countries have ratified the treaty and 26 have signed but not ratified.

Here's a basic rundown:

1. No state or country can claim sovereignty over any "celestial body."
2. Any space vehicle launched by a state or a country is the sovereign territory of that state or country.
3. Non-governmental entities operating in space have to get permission from their state, and the state is entirely responsible for everything they do.
4. If a state thinks an experiment or mission could cause "potentially harmful interference" with exploration missions they can request consultation.
5. A state is absolutely liable for any damage done on Earth by their activities in space.

So, that all sounds absolutely great. What's wrong with it? Why would anyone want it to go away?

Because we're moving into a new era. It's fairly generally acknowledged that the treaty does not forbid space mining per se, but...

1. It's arguable that the destruction or complete change of an asteroid through mining would violate the treaty.
2. If somebody were to convert a natural asteroid or other body to a base, as is done with Phobos in Transpecial, then they would not be able to own it. Which would mean nobody except maybe a scientific organization would ever do it.
3. Any colonies made in space that are not "space vehicles" would...what? Be international territory?
4. If somebody tried to divert an asteroid and failed, they would be legally liable for any damage done... (I haven't actually seen anyone bring this up, but based off of the treaty and follow ups, if you diverted an asteroid and, say, a piece fell off and hit Sydney, Australia, the country that authorized the mission would be completely liable! And we all know what convolutions people will go through to avoid being sued. I'm not saying anyone would just let a planet killer hit us...but...)

So, I strongly feel the treaty needs to be thrown out and replaced with something that reflects the technological development of the last fifty or so years and recognizes that we don't know what might come in the next fifty.