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How the Rest Was Won: Creating a Universally Beneficial Legal Regime for Space-Based Resource Utilization

How the Rest Was Won: Creating a Universally Beneficial Legal Regime for Space-Based Resource Utilization

Ian Hedges

History has demonstrated the United States’ ability to rapidly assert control over vast areas of land in a sweeping manner. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the country.[1] Over a century later, Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953, asserting control over 1.76 billion acres of submerged land.[2] And on September 10th, 2014, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives sat down to discuss what could be the beginning of a new era of American property acquisition.[3] The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space Act (Asteroids Act) strives to:

[F]acilitate the commercial exploration and utilization of asteroid resources to meet national needs” as well as “promote the right of United States commercial entities to explore and utilize resources from asteroids in outer space, in accordance with the existing international obligations of the United States, free from harmful interference, and to transfer or sell such resources.[4]

More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has mirrored some of Congress’ intentions. The agency plans to “leverage the FAA’s existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis.”[5] In doing so, the FAA acknowledged “the private sector’s need to protect its assets and personnel on the moon or on other celestial bodies.”[6]

Still in its preliminary stages, space law’s scope has yet to be defined. With private space industry on the rise, the need is increasingly apparent. Companies like Planetary Resources, with high profile investors including James Cameron and Richard Branson, are already envisioning a “new paradigm for resource discovery and utilization that will bring the solar system into humanity’s sphere of influence.”[7]

Yet this new paradigm—largely influenced by highly developed and affluent countries[8]—tends to focus on the desires of a select few private actors within the industry. These self-interested notions run contrary to traditional principles of space law, which provide for space explorations benefitting all mankind.[9] These competing ideals raise questions of property rights allocation in outer space and how acquired resources from space exploitation will be distributed.

Thus, this Note will look at the scarcity issue that surrounds natural resources and its applicability to such resources in outer space, the types of resources available in outer space, and the current regime of federal and international space-related laws and how they may interact with current systems of property and resource development. In addition, this Note explores how current federal public lands paradigms and other analogous areas of the law may cooperate with evolving space law. Lastly, this Note provides recommendations on how space law can ultimately promote not only a deeper understanding of the cosmos but also the knowledge of how to responsibly garner resources benefitting mankind from the depths of a little-known frontier.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at LawReview@vermontlaw.edu.


[1] Thomas Maitland Marshall, A History of the Western Boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, 1819-1841, at 10 (1914).

[2] 43 U.S.C. § 1332 (2014); Interior’s Ocean & Coastal Role: From Continental Divide to Continental Shelf, U.S. Dep’t of Interior (Apr. 2010), http://www.doi.gov/pmb/ocean/upload/DOI-Ocean-and-Coastal-Role.pdf.

[3] Jeff Foust, Hearing Raises Questions About Asteroid Mining Bill, Space News (Sept. 10, 2014), http://spacenews.com/41825hearing-raises-questions-about-asteroid-mining-bill.

[4] American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space Act, H.R. 5063, 113th Cong. § 51301 (2014).

[5] Irene Klotz, Exclusive—The FAA: Regulating Business on the Moon, Reuters (Feb. 3, 2015, 8:08 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/03/us-usa-moon-business-idUSKBN0L715F20150203.

[6] Id.

[7] Planetary Resources, http://www.planetaryresources.com (last visited Feb. 20, 2015).

[8] Outer Space Benefits Must Not Be Allowed to Widen Global Gap Between Economic, Social Inequality, Fourth Committee Told, Concluding Debate on Item, United Nations (Oct. 17, 2014), http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/gaspd.doc.htm-0.

[9] G.A. Res. 1472 (XIV), U.N. GAOR, 14th Sess., Supp. No. 13, U.N. Doc. A/4187, 5 (Dec. 12, 1959).

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