While the space race began with Nation States controlling everything from aerospace technology to launch rights, the United States quickly realized the value of private market participation. Humanity’s exploration beyond the blue planet expanded with legislation for commercial companies creating what is now often called the New Space Industry. Here are the five foundational Acts that guide entrepreneurs in this exciting sector.
The Outer Space Treaty is an international agreement that regulates both governments and the private sector. Acting as an arms-control treaty, it explicitly forbids any government from claiming celestial bodies like the Moon exclusively for themselves. However, it also puts the responsibility on national jurisdictions for launches and space objects so they are liable for damages. The treaty’s goal is to promote the peaceful use of outer space and not hinder investment opportunities in the sector. The treaty is ambiguous when it comes to activities like lunar and asteroid mining and is unclear about private property rights.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, in effect, created NASA, separating space exploration from a primarily military venture into a focused organization. NASA is charged with the expansion of human knowledge in space, improvement of space vehicles, development of space technology, and the preservation of the United States as a leader in aeronautical advancement. NASA’s success throughout the decades led to humans reaching the Moon and paving the way for a greater understanding of our universe.
The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 was the first law to facilitate the private enterprise of the commercialization of space and space technology. Understanding the value of private innovation, Congress wanted industries to contribute to the development of new information, remote sensing, and telecommunications technology. This Act allows private companies to build launch vehicles and satellites and to provide launch sites and services. The Department of Transportation is responsible for overseeing and coordinating commercial launches, issuing licenses and permits, and promoting safety standards.
The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 is known for spurring private aerospace entrepreneurship. It gives explicit permission for US citizens and businesses to "engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources". Yet it also states that the US itself does not hold any exclusive rights to those resources. The Act extends liability responsibility on US launch providers for any third-party losses of a failed launch through 2025.
The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 defines “space resource” as “a natural resource of any kind found in place in outer space”. The Act expands the President’s power to facilitate commercial exploration and utilization of space resources for the needs of the United States. It also states that commercial space companies must avoid “causing harmful interference in outer space” and are liable for any harm they do cause concerning asteroid resource utilization activity.
These laws have been successful in governing the macro trends of space exploration yet remain vague on specific guidelines for new space entrepreneurs. This creates some confusion for parties just entering the industry but gives companies the freedom to experiment and test new technology without over-regulation. It also gives current entrepreneurs a unique position to shape the future of Space Law.