Sunday, May 24, 2020

The treaties protecting outer space are starting to unravel

Since 1967, the Outer Space Treaty has, at least theoretically, prohibited the "national appropriation" of the moon and other celestial bodies, and specifically makes national governments responsible for private companies that might want to get into the space mining business. The United Nations' 1979 Moon Agreement reaffirmed that the moon and other bodies in space should be used for exclusivedly peaceful purposes and their environments should not be disrupted.
But this has always rankled with the USA, and things are starting to change at an alarming rate and in an alarming direction. In 2015, even before Donald Trump, the US Congress passed a law "allowing" US companies to extract, use and sell resources in space, despite the fact that this appears to directly contravene the international treaties to which they were signatories. Luxembourg, of all countries, followed suit, hoping to attract space resource companies to incorporate there. Most other countries objected and moved to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty and to establish UN guidelines on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
But then, just last month, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while no-one was watching, Donald Trump couldn't resist sticking his own oar in. He issued an executive order asserting the USA's right to space mining, and explicitly denying the widely-held view that space is a "global commons", owned by no-one country but meriting protection by all. He has gone still further with the "Artemis Accords", which he sees as setting the stage for a whole new generation of American-led space exploration and exploitation, using commercial companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX in addition to NASA. The way Trump sees it, if other countries want in on this, they will have negotiate bilaterally with the USA and accept all of its terms.
All of which puts Canada in a bit of a difficult spot. Canada has been involved in cutting-edge innovations in space research and exploration through the provision of the indispensible Canadarm robotic arm, and other Space Shuttle and International Space Station investments, and has had its share of astronaut time in recompense. Now, Canada wants to be involved in the proposed Lunar Gateway project, and has already made a firm committment to it. But, to continue, we would now need to accept and support the new aggressive US position on space mining, despite the fact that most of the world opposes it. This is in line with the usual Trump strategy of moving the goal-posts.
How much of our soul are we willing to sell, for a tiny slice of the space pie? I'd say none at all. Canada does have some bargaining room. If the USA wants another Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway, which apparently it does, then it will need to listen us. Alternatively, we can just stall for time and hope that Trump is voted out in November this year and is succeeded by a more sensible administration, although that is perhaps a more high risk strategy.
But it does seem like long-standing international agreements can no longer be relied upon in this brave new world of ours.

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