From May 29 to May 31, some of the world’s leading experts on space laws, policies, regulations and standards assembled at the McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law in Montreal to consider launching an initiative to bring an improved system of global governance to the burgeoning field of space commercial exploitation, use and scientific exploration. This effort will also undertake new efforts known as planetary protection.
Some 125 participants from 22 countries reviewed the rather dismal landscape of recent efforts to reach agreement on new space treaties or any type of consensus of international law for outer space. It was widely acknowledged that there have been no major treaties widely agreed upon since the 1970s.
The start of the Space Age was a very hopeful period. In reasonably short succession, we saw the adoption of the Outer Space Treaty (1967), the Astronaut Rescue Agreement (1968), the Liability Convention (1972) and the Registration Convention (1975). At the end of this honeymoon period, the Moon Treaty was successfully negotiated in 1979, but to date it has been ratified by only 15 countries.
Since these early five space treaties there has been a drought in global agreements on outer space. Some would say this is fine, we don’t need any treaties to do business in space, defend our territories or create innovative space services.
If one consults the Web page of the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs to find the official answer as to why we need new and improved space treaties, laws, regulations and standards, the answer there is the following: “The primary goals of space law are to ensure a rational, responsible approach to the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit and in the interests of all humankind. To this end, space law addresses a variety of diverse matters, such as military activities in outer space, preservation of the space and Earth environment, liability for damages caused by space objects, settlement of disputes, protection of national interests, rescue of astronauts, sharing of information about potential dangers in outer space, use of space-related technologies, and international cooperation.”
The assembled crowd at McGill, which included academics, legal scholars, space agency officials, military personnel and aspiring space entrepreneurs and business people, ended the three days of meeting with the Montreal Declaration. This declaration called for pursuing a new global study that would consider the major opportunities that are coming in space, the cosmic threats that endanger modern global infrastructures (such as vital comsats, navsats, remote sensing and weather satellites as well as terrestrial electrical power grids) and global population growth and rapid urbanization.
The purpose of this new international study is to explore new types of standards, practices, regulations, conventions and agreements for “outer and proto-space” that could help make our 21st century world better, expand commercial space operations and reduce interference. Other objectives would be to make global defense systems more secure and cosmic threats to modern society less hazardous.
The plan is to complete this study by drawing on the expertise of space agencies, private aerospace companies, new commercial space ventures, defense space systems, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, and private foundations and academic scholars. The ultimate goal is to identify and categorize threats and opportunities in space in a future-looking manner, and then identify through innovative thinking how space law and global space governance could provide a positive path forward.
This initiative is not about saying no in space, but rather to find new ways to say yes to global space cooperation and new rules to facilitate new players such as commercial space entrepreneurs to realize their dreams within a cooperative and viable network of standards, regulations and new forms of international agreements. If universal space treaties do not work anymore, what are the new ways to cooperate in space in the 21st century?
The plan is to reconvene a much larger, international and interdisciplinary group in Montreal in about two years to see what the results of this ambitious study might produce and to see what new solutions the study has identified. It is believed that space law is a major facilitator for space commerce, especially in capturing global market and resources. Global problems need global solutions that are sought and implemented in an open-minded manner and through global participation. The results might be as simple as better passive system standards to aid the orbital decay of space satellites to minimize orbital debris, or something as ambitious as a new and improved mechanism for planetary defense to better protect against extreme solar weather events and asteroid strikes. Many will say the goals are way too complex, lofty and ill-defined to succeed, but isn’t it at least worth a try? In light of the minimal global progress made by conventional international negotiations, it seems that now is the time to explore new mechanisms to cooperate in space.
The main problem is that the challenges of 21st century space are burgeoning and so new rules of the road in outer space and near space are urgently needed. Just in this area of near space, sometimes called proto-space (i.e., between 21 kilometers and 100 kilometers), commercial space ventures are proposing space tourism flights, lighter-than-air dark sky research stations, high-altitude platforms for remote sensing and global communications (such as the new Google venture), robotic freighters to carry transoceanic cargo, and hypersonic flights around the world. Just sorting out proto-space is a tremendous international challenge, and today it is pretty much the Wild West without a sheriff or marshal to be found anywhere.
We hope that the world space community will give this hopeful new initiative, from forward-looking people from around the world, a chance to succeed or fail. Those who would like to find out more can go to the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law’s website (www.mcgill.ca/iasl/manfred-lachs-conference-2014/program) to read the Montreal Declaration and the many thoughtful papers presented at the conference.
Dr. Joseph N. Pelton is former dean of the International Space University and a member of the executive board of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety. Dr. Ram Jakhu is organizer of the Global Governance of Space Conference at the McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law.