Space News is reporting that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA, intends to conduct the second in a series of hearing regarding the future of the space program and commercial space. The subject of the planned May 23 hearings is the outer space treaty and how it might be amended to account for the realities of 21st Century space exploration which is increasingly featuring private players as well as national space agencies.

What is the Outer Space Treaty?

The Outer Space Treaty was entered into in 1967 by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain.

It has since been signed and ratified by 105 nations around the world. The treaty was designed to govern space activities by its signatories. It prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and restricts the exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes. The treaty prohibits the appropriation of any celestial body such as the moon as sovereign territory. It requires the signatories to exercise responsibility for the actions of its nationals in space.

Why should the treaty be amended?

The Outer Space Treaty was negotiated and signed during the height of the Cold War Apollo race to the moon. It did not contemplate a situation in which private companies would establish facilities on the moon or asteroids to mine for resources or, as SpaceX’s Elon Musk dreams of, colonies on Mars.

Since national sovereignty cannot be exercised on other worlds, countries would not have much of a framework for regulating and defending the property rights of private corporations in space. Apparently, some kind of amendment is needed to define private property rights in space, how they can be asserted, and how they can be defended.

What had the United States done so far in regards to a legal framework for commercial space?

The 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act has a clause that allows private companies to own any material they extract from a celestial object such as the moon or an asteroid. While the provision is controversial outside the United States, it relies on the precedent of the Apollo moon rocks which are owned by the United States Government which sponsored the first manned moon landings.

Recently the United States government was obliged to grant a so-called mission license to a company called Moon Express that proposes to land a private space probe on the lunar surface under its Outer Space Treaty obligations. Since no regular procedure exists for the granting of such a license, the process was conducted on an ad hoc basis and involved several agencies and departments of the United States government. Legislation governing such mission licenses in the future is pending. It should also be noted that Bob Richards, the co-founder, and CEO of Moon Express, is on the witness list for the hearings.