It’s Time for a New International Space Treaty

By Ramin Skibba, is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in San Diego. He has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, and Nature, among other publications. Originally published at Undark.

Space is much busier than it used to be. Rockets are launching more and more satellites into orbit every year. SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, blasted more than 800 satellites into space in 2020 alone. Extraterrestrial tourism is about to take off, led by space barons Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, two of whom have already taken their first private space outings. The frenetic activity of space agencies and space companies around the world will extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, too. Within a few years, the moon will see many more landers, rovers, and even boots on the lunar ground. So will Mars and eventually, perhaps even some asteroids.

It’s an exciting time, but also a contentious one. An arena once dominated by the U.S. and Russia has seen the arrival of China and numerous other countries, with several nations establishing both a scientific and military presence in space. A burgeoning space industry, mostly led by U.S.-based companies, is angling for opportunities to monetize Earth-observing satellites, expensive visits to the edge of space, and trips to the moon with robotic and human passengers. Space junk clutters the atmosphere. Rival countries and companies hurtle satellites through the same orbits, and they eye the same key spots on the moon where water could be harvested from ice. Anti-satellite weapons tests by China and India that have flung debris into orbit illustrate just how precarious space is.

All that is to say, things have changed considerably in the more than half century since international space diplomats hammered out the Outer Space Treaty, the agreement that continues to serve as the world’s basic framework on international space law. Before space conflicts erupt or collisions in the atmosphere make space travel unsustainable — and before pollution irreversibly tarnishes our atmosphere or other worlds — we need a new international rulebook. It’s time for the Biden administration to work with other space powers and negotiate an ambitious new space treaty for the new century.

The Outer Space Treaty was deliberately written ambiguously. It outlaws nukes and other weapons of mass destruction being deployed in space, but makes no mention of lasers, missiles, and cyber weapons. The accord appears to ban private property in space and states that no nation can claim a piece of space or lunar territory as their own, but it does not explicitly restrict the extraction of resources like water and minerals.

The Moon Agreement, which went into force in 1984, went further. It states that countries are required to inform others if they have spacecraft entering the same orbit. It declares that the exploration and use of the moon must be done for the benefit of everyone. Under the agreement, Moon explorers have to take care of the lunar environment as well. And importantly, it forbids the claiming of extraterrestrial resources as property. However, only 18 countries are party to the sweeping treaty, none of them space-faring nations.

In recent years, policies on space law have taken an industry-friendly turn, particularly in the U.S. The Obama administration signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, also known as the Space Act, which, in theory, allows American companies to mine the moon and other celestial bodies however they wish and to keep the resources. Other countries, like Luxembourg, have followed suit. In 2020, the Trump administration went further, proposing the industry-friendly Artemis Accords, an attempt to further push the case for granting companies property rights in space. The accords comprised bilateral agreements with just 12 countries — notably without Russia and China, and without the involvement of the United Nations or any other international institution — putting them outside international space law. More than half a century after humans first set foot on the moon, there remains no clearly established, agreed-upon rules governing space activity.

In the absence of such a framework, the U.S. has embraced a de facto “launch first and ask questions later” strategy. The lack of international cooperation is one reason engineers were so caught off guard in 2019, when satellites launched by SpaceX and the European Space Agency nearly crashed into one another. Experts in space law can’t even agree on major questions such as what kind of responsibility space actors have to keep space clean and uncontaminated with debris, as there’s really no framework in place.

The Biden administration has so far focused its space policy not on treaties but on “norms,” non-legally binding principles that they hope will evolve into international agreements with teeth. But it’s hard to imagine that enforceable international space policies will be adopted unless Biden explicitly and enthusiastically calls for them, while urging Russian and Chinese leaders to do the same. More likely, whatever endeavors the space industry and military decide to pursue will retroactively become policy. This is already playing out in debates about the private harvesting of resources from the moon and asteroids, the types of spacecraft companies can put in orbit, and the kinds of space and anti-satellite weapons militaries can develop.

If we were to design a new space treaty that would preserve space primarily as a place for exploration and collaboration rather than for war and commercial gain, what would it look like? It would coordinate travel and limit traffic in busy orbits in the atmosphere while also taking steps to limit the creation of space debris. (Cleaning up the mess already clogging low-Earth orbit is another story entirely.) It would also build on the Moon Agreement, prohibiting the deployment and testing of weapons — including electronic weapons — in the atmosphere. And it would prohibit deploying and testing any weapons in space, not just on the moon or other celestial bodies. It would create an independent, international organization to review proposals for mining resources and establishing colonies on the moon, Mars, and beyond.

This sounds ambitious — and it is — but it’s achievable. The Antarctic Treaty of 1961 enshrines many of the same principles for activity on Antarctica, and it still works six decades later. Public opinion on space seems to be shifting, too, with growing calls to jettison colonialist views of space exploration in favor of more egalitarian approaches. If scientists, non-governmental groups, space environmentalists, and other stakeholders put pressure on the Biden administration, it could become politically feasible for the president to take a stand and jumpstart space diplomacy with the U.S.’s rivals. To the extent that it would help make space exploration sustainable, peaceful, and beneficial to all humanity, it would be worth the cost in political capital. We only have one atmosphere, one moon, and one night sky to cherish.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Bill Smith

    How would such agreements be enforced?


    “to design a new space treaty that would preserve space primarily as a place for exploration and collaboration”

    Would SpaceX, etc. be grandfathered in?

  2. The Rev Kev

    I am afraid that I am going to have to strongly disagree here with this author. There is a reason why it would be spectacularly bad idea to have a Constitutional Convention in the US at the moment and it is because any Convention would be dominated by Koch-appointed neoliberals and DC neocons. By the time they made their changes, you would be lucky to have a Bill of Rights and the President would be given supreme powers and would be above the laws of the constitution itself.

    Same here with a new Space Treaty. The bogus Artemis Accords would be embedded into the new Space Treaty and you would have future fights as different countries would, for example, lay claim to tens of thousands of square miles of the Moon and insist on far-ranging “security” zones surrounding them to keep out other countries. The US did everything in their power to keep the Chinese out of space and grudgingly only tolerated the Russians as they needed their boosters. A new treaty would start a fight between these countries and America would be in the position of fighting for the rights of American billionaires to dominate near space.

    I love stories about space travel but I sometimes think that the best thing that can happen is a Kessler syndrome to shut us out of there for a few centuries to keep the peace.

    1. Ralph Reed

      Back when the “Space Force” was planned in the 80s I was a satellite operator at a Space Command group stationed at Offutt AFB, home of Strategic Air Command headquarters and witnessed how instrumental we were in ending the cold war. Between the impossibilities of strategic nuclear arms utility, nuclear force software reliability, the proliferation of “Space Junk” and non-mythical near apocalypses in 1979 and 1983 the trillions of dollars squandered were beyond reason.

      Our commanding general was a shoo-in for Joint Chief until Clinton was elected. He named an Army revanchist instead and there went “the peace dividend.”

      There is still a structural impetus for international cooperation in space that could help regain the commons for humanity.

  3. Susan the other

    Some kind of charter for the League of Spacefaring Nations that not only establishes rights associated with property (as in manufactured and constructed items – not plots of land) but also obligations. The list of obligations should be done in detail. In fact, the “rights” should be established in the beginning by the obligations and only in reference to them. So that the obligations come first.

  4. Tom Doak

    The USA won’t sign any treaty that restricts it in any way, so it’s hard to see where this could go. Comparing it to the Antarctic Treaty is laughable . . . if only the world were as simple as it was in 1961 !

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    While the Corona pandemic appears ready to return, ruining our Mission Accomplished, and while the Congress takes a break leaving a lot of people hanging out to dry — I think re-opening negotiations on a space treaty makes excellent sense. Some lively debates about how to divide up the Moon and asteroids and quibbling about the boundless space trash overhead would help take our minds off other matters. The left hand can work more wonders out of our attention.

  6. David

    Usual problem. Treaties like this are only negotiated in the first place if the will is there to make them succeed, which means everybody capable of launching a satellite has to think it’s in their interests to have a treaty. Absent that minimal consensus, negotiations are a waste of time.

    1. vlade

      Or, if you can enforce it on the non-compliant and the majority wants them to succeed (say, if the US, Russia and China said “this is how space will be treated, and if you don’t like it, we’ll shoot down your vehicles”).

      Which ain’t gonna happen either.

      Hot air and pipe dreams.

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