Stuck On the Shore of the Cosmic Ocean

For millions of years, human beings and their ancestors stood on the shores of Earth’s oceans and gazed at the horizon, wondering what lay beyond, yearning to find out. Maritime history dates back only a few thousand years, driven by the bounty of the oceans and maritime trade between civilizations. By the time of Julius Caesar, several well established combined land-sea trade routes depended upon water transport through the Arabian Sea.

Bob Richards. Credit: Matt Rutherford

Bob Richards. Credit: Matt Rutherford

The invention of maritime technology freed us from our dependencies on local resources and enriched us with new opportunities for trade and commerce and the ability for humans to immigrate to new lands. Our concept of civilization was changed from where we could walk or ride to where we could sail, leading eventually to our modern concept of ‘human civilization’ spanning the world. In the wake of our economic expansion across the oceans, new laws arose, locally and internationally, governing freedom of movement in international waters and the rights and responsibilities of merchant ships sailing beyond the local shores.

Today, Earth’s economic sphere of commercial transport and trade extends into space. The merchant ships are now commercial spacecraft, and the new horizon is the ocean of space, but the principles and the challenges are the same.

Like the early coastal sailing vessels, commercial spacecraft routinely venture to Earth orbit, and the laws governing their launch and operation have evolved within and between space faring nations under the umbrella of a number of international treaties, the most prominent of which is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by over 100 countries.

But there is a challenge here, as no commercial enterprise has ever been licensed by any nation to venture beyond Earth orbit. To date, all planetary missions have been government missions, and de facto covered by the Outer Space Treaty. The challenges that commercial space companies currently face in aspiring to venture beyond Earth orbit are not just financial and technical, but political and legal.

Until regulatory frameworks are established that enable the licensing of commercial space missions beyond Earth orbit, private sector companies are stuck on the shores of our cosmic ocean. The world needs new laws allowing non-government space missions to venture beyond Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars, asteroids, or even the stars, wherever their commercial or aspirational goals take them.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, signed into law on Nov. 25 by President Obama, recognizes the rights of the private sector to extracted space resources. It also recognizes the absence of U.S. regulations to ensure U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, and set the regulatory wheels in motion to bridge the gap. Other nations such as Luxembourg and UAE are instituting similar commercial friendly space laws.

The new space renaissance emerging will expand Earth’s economic sphere to the moon and beyond. We are entering an era where economic trade between countries will become trade between worlds.

On April 8, my company, Moon Express, submitted the first application to the Federal Aviation Administration seeking approval for a commercial space mission beyond Earth orbit. It is our hope that our Moon Express 2017 Mission Approval framework will become a pathfinder for the private sector to engage in peaceful exploration beyond Earth orbit, bringing with it monumental implications for the advancement of technology, science, research, and development, as well as entrepreneurial space ventures that inspire new generations and expand Earth’s economic sphere.

Bob Richards (@Bob_Richards) is a space entrepreneur and a catalyst for a number of commercial space ventures. He is a co-founder of the International Space University, Singularity University, SEDS, the Space Generation Foundation and Moon Express, Inc. a commercial space transportation and lunar resources company, where he currently serves as president and CEO. Richards chairs the space commerce committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and is a member of the International Institute of Space Law.