Commercial space travel remains more of a capitalist fantasy than a day-to-day reality, but orbital holidays and meteorite mining feel inevitable. The technology is no longer generations away, and the time tables proposed by companies like SpaceX are aggressive. Given all that, It would be fair to say that the United Nations aviation agency’s call for space regulations has come a bit late. But it’s a hell of a call. The International Civil Aviation Organization has set a striking goal — just five years — for ratifying commercial space travel regulations.
There’s some reason to be optimistic that space travel will actually strengthen international law, making it less arcane by — to some degree — unifying it in the manner of maritime law. The need to regulate spaces not clearly defined by our terrestrial borders is universally understood and agreed upon. And the United Nations has already played a role in establishing guidelines, if not firm regulations, on the use of space to date. But those guidelines are outdated.
Back in 1963, the UN General Assembly adopted a “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space.” It declared that space should be open to all law-abiding nations, and those nations must take responsibility for anything they send up there. The United States, the Soviet Union and all of the world’s major nations later ratified these principles in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
It’s worth noting that despite the current UN guidelines, it’s well known that the world’s superpowers have considered weaponizing space. The Soviet Union’s Almaz military space station included an auto-cannon to prevent boarding, and the United States entertained space missiles as part of President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile shield. So the prospect of international cooperation in space travel and tourism should always be tempered by the potential for nations to prioritize their own military goals.
A utopian picture of space travel and exploration might include United Nation space traffic controllers in robin’s egg blue safety vests, but the reality will be more complicated. At this stage, individual nations claim responsibility for securing their own airspace, and the UN aviation agency only lends support and coordination for international flights. So the UN might play a coordinating role in setting international norms for commercial space flight, but it almost certainly will not regulate the industry — meaning it won’t provide any teeth to current law enforcement bodies.
The world’s nations are historically unwilling to give the UN greater control over militaries or industries, leaving the international body famously incapable of enforcing even its most cherished principles. International space travel is a good area for it to involve itself based on the need for multinational cooperation, but its role is also limited. The proliferation of satellites and space travel over the past decades has clearly established the need for greater coordination in space, but space remains the ultimate commons. The UN is just looking to avoid tragedy.