A full understanding of space law requires a comprehensive and deep understanding of the economic and political forces behind the law. Complicating this relationship is the fact that there is no accepted, standard, accurate or adequate definition of the commonly used term, space economy. It has been used to describe the entire spectrum of anything space-related and it has also been used to address very specific impacts of space on economic actors, problems, or issues.
The economic foundations and legal implementation of the obligations required by the Outer Space Treaty begin with the basic principle in Article I: the use and exploration of space is for the benefit of all humankind. Over the long history of space exploration, defining and measuring those benefits still remains a disputed and unsettled quantitative economic problem.
Another example can be found in Article II where the concept of non-appropriation of celestial bodies may clash with varying economic concepts of ownership and property. The current debate over how space resources can be used illustrates one aspect of this issue.
Article VI requires States to authorize and supervise both government and non-government space activities, raising both national and international economic questions of regulation, incentives, and equity.
Article VII mandates State liability for activities in space. This necessarily involves economic measures of risk and damages.
Article IX addresses environmental issues in space that include evaluating economic externalities.
And, of course, private companies are now much more active in outer space and face national and global economic issues of investment, production, market development, and ultimately, profitability.
A space economy implies that there is a stand-alone and independent supply, demand and distribution network that can be separated statistically and operationally from other economic systems. In today’s world, that is not the case. Space economic activities are terrestrial, from manufacturing to launching to impacts, benefits, and profits. And, all space economic activities are inherently tied to nations. These ties are insured by laws that make nations internationally responsible and liable for all of their space assets, both publicly owned and privately owned.
Often ignored is this intricately intertwined relationship between space economics and space law. Today’s rapidly changing ways of accessing, using, and benefiting from space are very different from those of the 1960s and 1970s. The drafters of the treaties clearly recognized that they dealt primarily with the issues facing them over 60 years ago and they were clear in their writings that the treaties would need to adapt over time to changing conditions. This has not happened—yet.
The perspective of the legal aspects of space in relationship to economic realities needs to be carefully evaluated. The solutions to these challenges will likely forge a promising future for all political, economic, and scientific, and other aspects of human exploration and use of outer space, subject to the important constraints of safety, sustainability and equity.