As every mother of adult children knows: bigger kids, bigger problems. This morning I found myself sending up a prayer of thanks that I am not Korean Kim’s Mom. “He was always a little monster,” I imagine his Mom confiding. Now he’s all grown up, probably wearing built-up shoes with his funky haircut, and there’s no end to the mischief he could get up to.
This morning I read an article about property disputes, health and safety nightmares and crimes sure to follow where no man trod before: the subject of space lawyers. Last year a group of private investors (including two Google executives, how lucrative is that?) formed a company called Planetary Resources with the intention of mining asteroids for valuable minerals. Before NASA or anyone starts mining on Bennu (a 1,600 ft. wide asteroid due to pass Earth in 2018 and swing back five years later) or the Moon or any other celestial body, a few issues need addressing, like who has the right to profit from space rocks? And if things go wrong, who is responsible? This is where the lawyers jump in.
Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 there have been moves to draft treaties and establish space laws. The foremost authority in this area of law is Joanne Gabrynowicz, Professor of Space Law at the University of Mississippi, editor in chief of the Journal of Space Law (addressing legal problems arising from human activities in outer space) and official observer to the UN on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. This has been Ms Gabrynowicz’ field of legal expertise for more than twenty years. There are already two universities teaching Space Law courses.
What happens if two companies go after the same asteroid? And what about liability if a lassoed asteroid crashes into Earth? Who is responsible for the damage potential of space junk? Who solves legal disputes between astronauts on an international space station?
Last year a Canadian declared himself owner of the planets in our solar system, four of Jupiter’s moons and the space between. The judge dismissed his claims as an abuse of the Canadian legal system. What if the judge had been less discerning? A Californian man registered the Moon at the county office in San Francisco, calling himself “Head Cheese” and sent the US, USSR and the UN a $55,000 bill for littering. We need lawyers. Precedents have the potential to be weapons of mass destruction.
What happens if, on a long mission, a child is born? Citizenship of a child born in space might establish interstellar leverage.
Thanks to the Outer Space Treaty, space is “a global commons governed by international law,” says Gabrynowicz, so international criminal law also applies. These issues are even more pressing since Richard Branson announced 2014 as a possible launch date of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, yet to be certified by US authorities.
Space law traces its philosophical underpinnings to the Russian and Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the Sputnik era. The US and Soviets realized that a rocket could carry a nuclear weapon, which forced them to consider the dangers. The Outer Space Treaty resulted, which explicitly prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space. Tsiolkovsky declared that space is a human activity, not a national one, so we go into space as part of humankind. But space law was originally drawn up for state actions, not the private sector. It’s largely untested.
A company on the internet is already selling plots on the Moon, and offering to name stars after those willing to pay. One can buy an acre on the Moon in the Sea of Tranquility for $37.50, or 3 acres at $28 an acre, ten at $22.50, a bargain. (If the certificate of ownership is set in a rosewood frame, add $65 to include shipping.) This makes an original gift for donors who would give you the moon, but recipients should keep things in perspective: one buyer is entitled to buy up to 40 acres. Having a star named after one is a snip at $16 for an unframed certificate. Your ownership is kept secret by the company, presumably so they can sell the same star to more than one buyer. Pointing convincingly to one’s own star would require poetic license. They don’t speculate if landing fees are payable if a spaceship alights on one’s registered plot.
A lot of junk litters our skies. As much as 1,400 tons of it have plummeted to earth so far, but to date the only death related to objects falling from space was that of a cow in Cuba in the sixties.
Terrorists are unlikely at this stage to have access to rockets to launch their weapons in space, but I worry about Kim. He is developing rockets. He has the resources at his subjects’ expense, to divert to this evil end, but more troubling is his dangerous mentality. He’s young; he has time on his side. Might he harbor an ambition to be known as The Man Who Nuked the Moon? Is he crazy enough to risk the effect on the earth’s tides? To dim the Moon’s light? To affect its trajectory, just to be immortalized as the Most Influential Man on Earth Ever?
Only his Mom knows that.