By Theo Burman
It may seem like the last of our worries at the moment, but the laws regarding space and how it’s governed have huge repercussions for our future. Considering that space exploration was born in the conflict of the Cold War, it’s unsurprising that there is still no consensus on Space Law in the international community. But this sets a dangerous precedent. If and when we establish colonies beyond Earth, whose laws will they have to follow? Who will they be accountable to? If we are to have a future beyond the constraints of our own planet, there has to be system in place that everyone respects.
The myriad of laws and treaties concerning space puts anything outside our atmosphere in the same group as international waters, meaning no individual, company, or nation is currently able to own land outside of space. In the same way the deep seabed and international airspaces have been deemed “the common heritage of mankind”, cosmic objects like the Moon and any potential colonies are considered the general property of the human race. This has gone a long way to protect space from territorial dispute, but it does make governance of space extremely difficult. If no one rules the area, what happens when someone commits a crime there?
In 2019, Astronaut Anne McClain illegally accessed her distanced spouse’s bank account from onboard the International Space Station, committing what is Widley considered to be the first space crime. With no legal precedent, the ISS’s emergency regulations came into force, and McClain was prosecuted and tried by America, her country of birth. While this system works for collaborative, good-faith projects like the management of the space station, what happens when our exploits in space become more complex? If a Russian were to assassinate an American in a Martian colony, would Russia have the right to try their own citizen?
The main priority of any governance of space from Earth should be to reach a point where it can safely dissolve itself. That is to say, all of world history highlights the fact that colonies governed by external forces are not only immoral but doomed to fail, meaning that political self-sufficiency is a must-have for civilisation in space. But our life in space won’t appear as a fully formed society. It will be gradually developed, artificially sculpted to meet whatever scientific checkpoints are required to sustain life off of earth. There will be little room for political independence.
This means that until an area in space has the social wherewithal to govern itself, it has to be governed from Earth, which is the main point of conflict. All previous agreements regarding Space Law, such as that of shuttles and satellites have clear ownership and origin; an American satellite, while being in space, remains US property, in the same way ships in international waters represent their country of origin. There has never been an agreement over something as permanent as extra-terrestrial land.
Thankfully, we have the next best thing in the ISS. As the largest habitable space beyond our atmosphere, it’s the closest thing we have to a colony, and the key to moral space governance lies in its conception. The ISS is an inherently collaborative effort, and in many ways completely rejects the competitive atmosphere that the space race was created by. Divided into two segments, run by the US and Russia respectively, the ISS has a wide variety of occupants across 16 countries. A body comprised of representatives from the nations that built the ISS (the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe) subsequently designed the laws and regulations which would go on to decide how McClain would be prosecuted.
This model was possible because each member state knew this was a predominantly scientific project. There were no attempts to seize control of how the ISS was run because there was nothing to gain from doing so. If the first governable areas of space are colonised in the same way, then this same model could be replicated, with a combination of nations taking responsibility for space until that area is developed enough to govern itself. This is certainly a long-term plan, but most cosmic predictions are. If scientists are able to map out the exact route of a satellite over decades, then politicians should at the very least be able to make a coherent plan about how we govern space.
Image: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight via Flickr