The Outer Space Treaty was Signed in 1967. Can it Handle the Future of Space Exploration?

In a recent study submitted to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for the 8th Interstellar Symposium special issue, which is due for publication sometime in 2024, Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra, who is a senior research investigator and the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, examines how future space exploration governing laws could evolve, either crewed or uncrewed and in the solar system or beyond. He views this study as an expansion of interplanetary governance models he previously discussed in his book, Sovereign Mars, to explore potential limits on space governance at interstellar distances.

“The goal of my paper is to think pragmatically about future space governance, before we start significant human exploration,” Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today. “It is important that we learn from the lessons of history and begin these long-term conversations now.”

Along with his book, Dr. Haqq-Misra also draws upon the longstanding Outer Space Treaty (OST) as a reference towards a pragmatic approach to governing space activities for future space exploration. Established on January 27, 1967, the OST is formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It is considered the fundamental structure of current international space law guided by several key principles, including using and exploring outer space for the betterment of everyone and not just individual nations, the use of the Earth’s Moon and other planetary bodies as being strictly for peaceful motives, and that no single nation can claim something in outer space as their own, just to name a few.

Currently, 114 nations are considered parties to the OST, which include all spacefaring nations, along with 22 additional nations as OST signatories. Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today that he considers the OST as being “broadly successful in keeping space a domain for peaceful exploration and science”, but how does he see the OST being altered as humanity travels farther out into the cosmos?

“I do not think it is likely that the OST will be altered because changing a treaty is an arduous process–almost as difficult as drafting an entirely new treaty,” Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today. “But nations have three options with treaties: follow the treaty, withdraw from the treaty, or ignore the treaty. With interstellar travel, ignoring provisions of the OST becomes more likely as it will be difficult to supervise the activities of space explorers who are light years away from Earth.”

Dr. Haqq-Misra’s study puts enormous emphasis on certain pragmatic constraints based on historical precedence, which in summary, says new space laws could face opposition from spacefaring nations, required sharing of space resources will not gain support from all spacefaring nations, and new space laws won’t garner enough signatory nations for it to be taken seriously as international law. Examples that fall under either one or multiple constraints include the Law of the Sea Convention, Antarctic Treaty System, International Seabed Authority, Moon Agreement, and the recent Artemis Accords. The pushback currently being displayed with these examples is why Dr. Haqq-Misra puts strong emphasis on developing pragmatic approaches to future space laws. But in addition to pragmatism, what other recommendations could be made regarding future laws governing outer space exploration, either in the solar system or beyond?

“I think that new space treaties are unlikely, so new space law will likely develop based on best practices by commercial space industries, contracts between public and private agencies, national legislation, and litigation,” Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today. “I recommend that space agencies individually and collectively develop self-consistent approaches toward long-term problems of governance to approach space settlement with foresight, rather than respond to problems in hindsight.”

The study very briefly mentions science fiction, strictly noting that it is where “unilateral governance across interplanetary and interstellar distances may be prevalent”, but it does not mention specific science fiction examples by name. However, several examples of space governance can be drawn from science fiction, specifically Star Trek and Star Wars. In the former, the largest and most well-known governing body for space is the democratic United Federation of Planets, more commonly known as Starfleet, while the latter features various forms of democratic and authoritarian governance throughout its time, including the Old Republic, Galactic Empire, New Republic, and First Order. But whether drawn from historical precedence or science fiction, why is it important to maintain a pragmatic approach for our own future space laws, and what conditions could potentially make them less pragmatic?

“Visions of space settlement can easily drift into the speculative territory of science fiction or philosophical thought experiments, but many ideas that emerge from such exploration could not be implemented in the near-term future,” Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today. “Any models for space governance need to be technically feasible, in the sense that they cannot invoke concepts that we know are physically impossible or constrained. The political realities of the world must also be acknowledged: even if the future is radically different, there must be a logical trajectory from the past to the future in order for it to be a viable scenario. And any space governance model must be sustainable across long time scales—thousands of years or more—which can be a challenge for many governance models on Earth.”

For now, humans have only been as far as the Moon, but that will likely change in the next few years or decades. While a trip to the Moon only takes a few days while current trips to Mars take about seven months within two-year launch windows based on the Red Planet’s orbital position to the Earth. Sending uncrewed spacecraft into the outer solar system takes several years, but the famed Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft took decades to reach the boundary of our solar system and interstellar space, and it is currently estimated that Voyager 1—the first to enter interstellar space—will take tens of thousands of years to reach our nearest star, Alpha Centauri. Unlike science fiction, we have yet to come close to mastering faster-than-light propulsion. Therefore, how will the increased travel distances, either within or beyond our solar system, affect future space laws, specifically pertaining to enforcing them?

“Enforcement will become extremely difficult with interstellar distances,” Dr. Haqq-Misra tells Universe Today. “Communicating with Mars imposes delays on the order of tens of minutes, but communicating with explorers around nearby stars could take tens of years or longer. Implementing the OST requirements for government supervision of commercial space agencies remains a challenge for exploration of Mars and beyond.”

How will space laws evolve as humanity continues to push outward into the cosmos in the coming years, decades, and even centuries and millennia? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!