Humans have inhabited the Earth for about 200,000 years. Claiming lands and searching out new territories have long been a part of our history as curious beings. Throughout time, stories unfold of the human desire to expand spatial boundaries and to explore new places we can call our own. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, which transmitted radio signals to operators throughout the world as it orbited Earth’s atmosphere. Stargazing, planetary adventures, and unknown territories became an attainable frontier that sparked new interests among nations and launched the competitive “space race.”
But where do ownership rights lie in this race to propel humanity into the unknown? The reality of space exploration gave birth to space law. About 10 years after Sputnik 1 signaled down from space, the United Nations gathered to negotiate international rules that would govern activities in space. The U.N. signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, declaring space a global commons. It established that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and interests of all mankind” and “space and celestial bodies are free for exploration and use by all nations.”
As of this writing, it still holds true that no part of space can be national territory. Sure, we’ve had astronauts stake flags on the moon, boldly decorating the lunar surface—but this act is no symbol of sovereignty—and so last century. In the new millennium, this civil space is buzzed with private transportation ventures and commercial pursuits that would leverage space into a trillion-dollar industry. To get there, you simply need a rocket and a license to launch. Just check with the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation to get your paperwork in order.
Space tourism takes people on suborbital rides, and the International Space Station has booked private travel stays. Alongside tourism opportunities, billionaire investors and private companies are eager to weigh in on mining potential for precious metals and untapped resources. Property law in space ends with the Outer Space Treaty’s non-appropriation rule. This prevents space-development enthusiasts from touching down on celestial bodies and taking what is not rightfully theirs, for now.
Future markets, innovations, and legal merits involve earthly contracts, agreements, and ideas where the only constant is change. As space travel technology improves, pressures to allow for profitable exploration will increase. Space will become big business. When it is profitable to mine minerals from asteroids or build solar arrays on the moon, will we rewrite the non-appropriation rule? Can we sell space to the highest bidder?