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Billionaires going to space aim to industrialize the moon, asteroids, and Mars. It's time to set some ground rules.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Billionaires going to space aim to industrialize the moon, asteroids, and Mars. It's time to set some ground rules.

The space business is in bloom and, so far, it's largely unregulated.

A commercial spacecraft touched down on the moon for the first time last month, in a NASA-sponsored mission by the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines.

Then last week, SpaceX's Starship mega-rocket finally launched into space and cruised above Earth without exploding.

Both achievements were major leaps forward for NASA's new moon program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface using Starship. In fact, NASA's biggest plans — to replace the aging space station, establish a permanent base on the moon, and send astronauts to Mars — depend on companies like SpaceX or Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin.

But the billionaires helming those companies have even bigger plans.

Elon Musk has said he plans to fly 1,000 Starships to build and populate a city on Mars. Bezos envisions a trillion people living in giant space stations across the solar system.

Other space startups have ambitions including asteroid mining, in vitro fertilization (IVF) in space, and space hotels.

What's to stop companies from putting giant advertisements on the face of the moon? Or industrializing craters that scientists want to use for telescopes? Or mining a single asteroid for $100 quintillion worth of precious metals, bringing it back to Earth for sale, and destabilizing the global economy? What will keep the budding deep-space industry in check?

"There isn't anything specifically enforceable," Mai'a Cross, a professor of international affairs and diplomacy at Northeastern University, told Business Insider.

There are no laws or regulations for moon landings or asteroid mining. As space startups and billionaires vie for a foothold on the moon and beyond, experts say governments probably need to start setting some ground rules.

"We're going to have to figure out how we want to operate, what rules we want to live by, and what the framework is going to look like," George Nield, former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told Business Insider.

The new space economy needs room to grow

NASA doesn't want to run the show anymore. Instead, NASA wants to be one of many customers leasing spots in private companies' rockets, spaceships, space stations, and lunar habitats.

"We want to really try to grow the lunar economy and have these companies be successful," Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a press briefing ahead of the Intuitive Machines mission.

So far, the US government has deliberately avoided regulating the emerging space economy, for fear of suffocating it before it takes off.

The FAA is quite active in regulating passenger safety on airplanes, for example, but has no rules for spaceflight passenger safety, even as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic fly tourists to the edge of space or around the planet.

"We do need much more regulation than currently exists," Cross said.

"It is also in the interest of the private companies to call for this regulation sooner rather than later, because they don't want to start investing and taking action on things that, down the road, will be deemed illegal," she added.

For now, only a handful of international agreements outline what is and isn't acceptable in space, and they have no teeth.

Space treaties help, but they aren't enforceable

Space diplomacy started with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Among other things, the treaty asserts that nobody can claim territory or sovereignty in space, nobody can put nuclear weapons in space, and that states are responsible for the space activities of even their non-government actors — such as companies or nonprofits.

"It's a pretty strong agreement. But like most international law, there is actually no significant way to enforce those norms," Cross said.

In 2020 NASA introduced the Artemis Accords as a fresh agreement for the new lunar exploration era.

Signed by 36 countries so far (but not Russia or China), the Accords call for nations going to the moon and beyond to be peaceful, help astronauts in distress, share scientific data, avoid junking up the moon and its orbit, and mine space resources sustainably.

Those treaties are for nations, though. In 2022 the Hague Institute for Global Justice started a similar agreement for commercial entities.

Called The Washington Compact, this treaty for space commerce reflects many of the same principles as the Outer Space Treaty. A series of space startups, civil-society organizations, consultants, and two former NASA administrators have signed it. SpaceX and Blue Origin have not signed on.

In the absence of space law, peer pressure can help

Still, shared norms and treaties can be powerful even without enforcement. Companies operating on the moon will have a strong incentive to play nice with each other: It's good for business.

"Sure, we can pretend we don't have any regulations, but then your mining operation is going to get ruined when somebody drives their rover too close or, whatever you set up, your telecommunications platform is going to get messed up because somebody else decided to build something right next to you," Michelle Hanlon, executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, told Business Insider.

"It's going to be much, much more to your benefit, and to your shareholders' benefits, if you can manage to get along with your neighbors," she added.

What's more, companies that want to leapfrog from the moon to Mars will need the moon's resources to get there. That's a built-in incentive not to over-mine or crowd the moon's orbit.

Limited capacity should also hold most companies back from going rogue for a while. Intuitive Machines could only go to the moon with the help of its investors, NASA, and customers who paid to put their projects on the lander.

"In these early phases, everything will be so experimental that working together will be necessary," Cross said. "This wouldn't just be one space billionaire with one project."

Even SpaceX's plans for fully private missions, so far, are basically joy rides bankrolled by other billionaires: Jared Isaacman and Yusaku Maezawa.

"That doesn't necessarily solve all the problems, but it does kind of weaken the sense that this is just someone like Elon Musk, really, determining all of the norms and rules in space," Cross said.

Setting rules while the space titans are still 'Star Trek geeks'

The US is at the forefront of commercial space exploration, putting Congress in a prime position to lead the way on what the rules should be.

Half of global private space investment is in US companies, the US International Trade Commission reported in November. Seven of the world's 10 biggest commercial space operators are based in the US, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

As the industry plows forward, Congress is starting to consider the issue. In November, two Republican representatives introduced a bill that would create a certification process for commercial space missions, adding to the FAA's launch licensing and the Federal Communications Commission's regulation of satellite transmissions, SpaceNews reported.

In another vein, last year Florida passed a bill to protect space companies and their owners from getting sued over spaceflight passenger death or injury.

"I think, frankly, government is struggling to keep pace with industry," Nield, the former FAA official, said of the overall regulatory landscape.

It may be wise to catch up while the entrepreneurs vying for space seem to be truly passionate about it — "Star Trek geeks," in Hanlon's words.

"Right now you have a pretty small community of people who are like-minded," Hanlon said. "We really need to take advantage of this sort of camaraderie that we have, and try to build some of these frameworks before we start getting the bad actors who are really just in it for the money."

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