Who Lays Claim on Space?



Space has been the final frontier, but don’t expect exploration of the great beyond to devolve into the Wild Wild West. Frans von der Dunk, professor of Space Law at the University of Nebraska and founder of Black Holes Consultancy, has published books on the legal maneuvering that comes with extending mankind’s reach beyond the planet. SRQ consulted with von der Dunk as well, on what to expect when he speaks at PINC Sarasota on Dec. 10.

In Florida, many remain distraught that the U.S. government is not sending manned spaceflights up right now. How important is manned flight to advancing our understanding of the universe?  That’s a quasi-eternal debate. There is no question that also in the context of scientific exploration humans out there can provide a major value added: on the other hand, much of that exploration and science can also be done by in-space telescopes, deep space probes and robotic missions—and then of course much cheaper. Only for science in micro-gravity as such—the ISS [International Space Station]—there currently is a good case to be made that manned spaceflight at least provides some benefits that robotic research might not have delivered. Currently, therefore, I would tend to say that the re-focussing of NASA on non-routine activities beyond low earth orbit makes a lot of sense, even as they for the time being will be non-manned. Private operators seem to inch closer to being able to take up manned spaceflight to LEO (which is part of what i am going to address) and in the long run this frees up a lot of money in the NASA context for also using manned spaceflight beyond LEO.

There is an American flag planted on the moon, but can you tell us if nations can actually lay claim on celestial bodies? To what degree can governments take ownership of things beyond the Earth?  No, the planting of the US flag on the Moon was only to symbolize that it was the U.S. taxpayer which had paid for the Apollo missions getting there. Neil Armstrong’s footstep was for all mankind, and indeed the United States was one of the major instigators (together with the then-Soviet Union) to ensure by way of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (notably Art. II thereof) that the Moon and all other parts of lute space remained outside any individual country’s territory, could not be legally colonized along the lines we had known on Earth. Only the discussion on ownership of specific resources ‘harvested’ out there remains to some extent still open—the Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts were considered U.S. property, also by other states, but at the same time access to them was shared with scientists from all around the world.

Will the future of space exploration be driven by the public or private sector?  The short answer is: both. Exploration of the real unknowns—that is, starting beyond LEO—is by and large too expensive certainly today for non-governmental entities to entertain, so we still need governments to pave the way there. At the same time, the private sector is generally better equipped to (and known for its ability to) cut costs, so where it is allowed to blossom—within general rules respecting public interests such as security, safety and environmental issues—it can ultimately also help cut costs for the governments to go out there. Again, the re-focus of NASA freeing up the LEO realm for private entrepreneurs—if something does not go wrong—is an excellent example thereof.

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