Atlas V rocket launches with Juno spacecraft

Privatising space

Who owns space? And what about the research done there?

Under the 1967 Treaty on Outer Space, no single country can lay claim to ownership of the Moon or the planets. But what about private individuals, or companies? Could Coca-Cola install a big neon advertising sign on the lunar surface? Space law is something that people are seriously starting to consider. In recent years there have been plans put forward to mine asteroids, which can contain trillions of dollars’ worth of precious metals. But who has rights to these asteroids? Is it the first person to get there?

This is part of a growing trend of the commercialisation of space. Once, only the wealthiest governments could afford to go into space, backed by the taxes of their citizens. Now private companies are joining in. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk is one of the entrepreneurs behind SpaceX, a company regularly used by NASA to deliver packages to the International Space Station. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hopes to make space tourism an everyday adventure. A Dutch project called Mars One is aiming to build a permanent colony on Mars and broadcast the whole thing as a reality TV show. Who gets to decide if this is allowed? What if the Mars One mission crashes, killing those on board? Or what if their presence on the Red Planet wipes out any alien life that might be there before we’ve had a chance to study it?

Some are also concerned about the impact of increased space activity on our cultural heritage. In 2013, a bill was put before the US Congress which attempted to preserve the Apollo landing sites as National Historical Parks in the hope of protecting the sites against future landings. Are the sites worth saving? Given the 1967 Treaty on Outer Space, can one nation claim lunar land in this way, even for seemingly noble purposes?

What do you think?

Should the privatisation of space be allowed? We have listed a couple of pros and cons for each side. Can you think of more?

Pros

  • By allowing private companies to compete for contracts, the price and ease of space exploration are improved for everyone.
  • More frequent and cheaper access to the environments of microgravity could accelerate the scientific spin-offs.

Cons

  • Commercialising space travel would require a much higher level of regulation, with some very thorny legal issues to address.
  • Commercial endeavours could end up trumping the scientific exploration of space.

Lead image:

NASA HQ Photo/Flickr CC BY NC ND

References

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Space Biology’ in June 2015.

Topics:
Cell biology, Ecology and environment
Issue:
Space Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development