In the 63 years since the launch of Спутник 1, space activities have come a long way. Today, the global space economy is estimated at 371 billion US$, of which the downstream sector reaps roughly 60%, whereas 22% stem from institutional budgets. Analysts predict the global space economy to grow to 1 trillion by the year 2040. The days when space activities were motivated primarily by strategic and national prestige reasoning seem long gone by. The increasing involvement of the private sector needs to be taken into account in the continuous shaping of the rules governing the exploration and use of outer space.
On the one hand there needs to be sufficient legal certainty to allow for innovative activities to go ahead, on the other hand, the rules and regulations need to strike a balance between the general freedom to explore and use outer space by the current space actors, and the ethical obligation to safeguard those same freedoms to those not yet capable to exercise these legal freedoms, as well as to ensure the manifold benefits of such activities also to future generations.
Governance of space activities is multidimensional. In the international sphere, there is a mêlée of on the one hand binding, yet high-level Treaties and Agreements, and, on the other hand, non-binding, yet often very specific technical standards and guidelines. This mixture creates important discretionary prerogatives to the policy- and lawmakers around the globe to respond to different political impulses in shaping their national space legislation, where a tightrope is to be walked between making local conditions appealing enough to attract – or keep – commercial space actors, while on the other hand ensuring that private activities and operations do not expose the State to unreasonable risks.
A competition between national legislators might spiral into a regulatory race to the bottom, in which regulatory standards, for example relating to the environment both on Earth and in space, may be up for debate. What is required now is a sincere, intelligent and visionary dialogue between all stakeholders at the appropriate level with a view to allowing the harvesting of the huge benefits of space activities for a sustainable development on Earth while avoiding that outer space falls victim to a tragedy of the commons.