Space Business, Space Law

Who owns space? Can you visit space as a tourist or own land on the Moon? Who regulates activities in space? Who cleans up if a satellite falls in your back yard? This lecture looks at the related issues of people trying to make money from space activities and the laws which apply to these endeavours.

National Sovereignty

Nations own their territory, but how far does that ownership extend? Mineral rights extend sovereignty underground, as far as we can drill (a few kilometers), and in theory perhaps to the centre of the Earth. Nations also exercise sovereignty over their 'air space', the atmosphere directly above their territories. Sovereignty has also been extended into the sea (e.g. Hibernia oil field). But it doesn't reach above the atmosphere, initially because nobody could go there and then because orbital flight cannot be confined within national borders. So sovereignty may be thought of as extending from the centre of the Earth to the upper atmosphere, usually taken to be about 100 km high. Beyond that, different laws apply.

United Nations Treaties

The United Nations has drawn up a series of treaties to govern space activities. Read through the list below to see details. First, they banned nuclear weapon tests in space (both the US and the USSR initially considered exploding nuclear weapons on the Moon as a way of proving they had reached it). Next they insisted that space activities be conducted for the benefit of all nations, not just the two superpowers, including this important statement:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

Various other treaties cover liability for falling satellites and so on - see what they say! The last treaty, the infamous 'Moon Treaty', asserts that lunar resources are 'the common heritage of mankind' and should be developed under the control of an international body. No major spacefaring nation has agreed to this last treaty.

International space treaties.
Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill
Moon Treaty commentary.
Moon Treaty commentary. (PDF file)

Owning the Moon

In the last four decades various organizations including the Astronomical Society of the Pacific have 'sold' lunar land to raise money, but only as a novelty without a real claim of ownership. More recently, true claims of ownership have been made. The quote above disallows national claims, but apparently not individual claims. On the basis of that 'loophole', one company has claimed to own the Moon and sell deeds to parcels of land. Another approach is favoured by The Lunar Republic, a group seeking to return to the Moon to build a colony. They argue that only the actual occupation of land grants the right to ownership. They have licensed a company, The Lunar Registry, to sell 'claims' to property, which would become legally owned when the colony is established. These ownership claims have not been tested in court and general legal opinion is strongly against them. Similarly, Gregory Nemitz of Orbdev claimed to own asteroid 433 Eros, and charged NASA a 'parking fee' when its NEAR spacecraft landed on it in 2001. That claim was rejected, an appeal was lost, and Nemitz has given up the fight.
Lunar Registry.
Owning asteroid Eros.
Owning the sun - a critique of ownership.

Making money in space - big business

First, of course, no money is spent in space. Apollo went to the Moon, but all its funds were spent here - on the people who mined the iron, aluminum and titanium ores the rockets were made from, or cleaned the offices where the spacecraft were designed, as well as all the salaries of the scientists, engineers and managers. Big businesses also make money from space activities, primarily building launch vehicles or satellites for communications and remote sensing. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Intelsat and Orbimage fly satellites to provide TV broadcasts or to sell images for research, press use etc.
Lockheed Martin.
United Space Alliance. (Boeing + Lockheed Martin)

Making money in space - launch vehicles

You can't get to space without a launch vehicle of some kind. The first were military missiles. Now there are launch vehicles of many kinds in many countries, and countries like India, Japan and China have their own independent launch capabilities. Businesses like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Science compete to launch satellites using both large rockets (such as Atlas, Delta) and small (such as Pegasus). Recently several companies have tried to develop novel launchers in an effort to reduce launch costs, but they have found it hard to obtain financing. Companies such as Rotary Rocket and Kistler Aerospace have shut down or slowed down work, but some progress is being made.
Kistler Aerospace
Xcor Aerospace
Rotary Rocket(note: the Rotary site itself has shut down)

Making money in space - space 'burials' and other services

Several smaller businesses are now trying to make money from novel activities in space. Celestis, Inc. has provided orbital 'burials' (really 'memorial flights', launching a tiny portion of cremated ashes into orbit on a regular satellite launch). They have flown four Earth orbit missions (one failed during launch), carrying remains of, among others, Gene Roddenbury and Timothy Leary. James Doohan (Star Trek's Scotty) will be on the next flight in 2007. As a special arrangement they also put a small portion of a famous scientist's ashes on a spacecraft that went to the moon in 1999. Orbital and lunar services are now offered. Another company, The Crater Company, previously allowed you to (unofficially) name a crater as a memorial, but it has disappeared from the WWW. The Lunar Registry, mentioned above, lets you 'buy' land on the Moon.
Celestis (now Space Services Inc.)
Buy land on the Moon.

Commercial lunar missions.

The first proposed commercial lunar flight was called 'Harvest Moon', and was to use Apollo hardware left over after the last three Apollo flights were cancelled. It was proposed by 'The Committee for the Future' in the early 1970s and would have tried to pay for itself by selling lunar rocks. The scheme was soon abandoned. Recently, robotic missions have been proposed: Applied Space Resources planned a robotic soil sample return mission but could not raise the money needed. Transorbital Inc. is planning a lunar orbiter which will collect images and video for sale, as well as delivering cargo to the lunar surface, but its future is uncertain. Lunacorp Inc. promoted remote-controlled rovers on the lunar surface, driven in part by theme park customers in driving simulators linked to live video and motion sensors on the rovers. Raising money proved very difficult, and they gave up to concentrate on other topics through the Transformational Space Corporation.
Transformational Space Corp.

Space Tourism

Four people so far (Dennis Tito; Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari), have paid about $20 million (US) each to fly in the spare seat of a Russian 'Soyuz' spacecraft for a week-long trip to the International Space Station. Space Adventures arranged those flights and is active in promoting this type of tourism. NASA was originally opposed to this but has had to accept it. Russia simply needs the money. A cheaper route to space would be a short sub-orbital (up and down in 20 minutes) flight. The Ansari X-Prize was set up to encourage this business. Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne (Scaled Composites) flew to the edge of space (100 km) three times and won the prize, but two Canadian rockets were also in the running. The X-prize has evolved into plans for an annual event in New Mexico, and Virgin Galactic's goal of multi-person tourist flights from about 2008 onwards. Space Adventures is now promoting a voyage around the Moon for a mere $100,000,000 in a Russian Soyuz vehicle.
Space Adventures.
Space Adventures: take a trip to the Moon.
Bigelow Aerospace - big plans!
Zero Gravity Corporation
X-prize. - and the X-prize cup.
X-prize contenders
Scaled Composites.
da Vinci Project (Toronto, Ont.)
Canadian Arrow (began in London, Ont.)
Virgin Galactic
Blue Origin.