The Antarctic and Outer Space Treaties after the Cold War: Are They Still Valid?

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

The two separate treaty regimes—The Antarctic Treaty of 1960 and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967—worked relatively well in the context of the Cold War environment between World War II and about 1990. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, however, changed the dynamics of geopolitics and brought changes in the manner in which the nations of the world have dealt with both Antarctica and outer space. Both treaty regimes have clear statements about prohibitions, guidelines, and objectives that served well for many years, but their place in a non-Cold War era has eroded.

Overall the evolution of policies and law governing these regions has reflected the influence of the science community on the political leadership in concert with geopolitical motivations, replacing what analyst U.M. Bohlmann called “the early hard power arguments to the quest for scientific knowledge perceived as a cultural imperative.”

In the last twenty-five plus years a series of new pressures have arisen. At a fundamental level the IGY, the problem of Antarctica, “freedom of space,” and Sputnik were interrelated and handled in an essentially similar manner. All actions were largely predicated on the belief that nothing of intrinsic value is present either in Antarctica or in space.

However, both major legal structures—the “freedom of space” doctrine ensconced in the Outer Space Treaty and the Antarctic Treaty—were fragile instruments at present and under assault from several quarters, especially military and economic interests. In both cases, a question: what would happen should something of worth be found in Antarctica or in space?

While the communities overseeing these regions continue to protect and sustain science exploration and discovery through existing treaties and policies, it is obvious that in the future efforts to allow appropriate technological development and expansion of human activities must take place.

For example, since near the turn of the new millennium a consistent drumbeat has been raised by private citizens and some groups to overturn the prohibition against property rights of celestial bodies. They insist that the Outer Space Treaty has been the fundamental disincentive to exploit space bodies. Indeed, in an environment in which outer space is considered a “province” owned by all, as argued by Lawrence D. Roberts, there is no guarantee that any private sector investment in resource exploration and exploitation would be allowed.

lunar-x-prizeIndeed, much of this was an academic debate until 2010 when the Google Lunar X Prize offered a $20 million purse to the first team to land a rover on the Moon; with an added $5 million if the team could image a lunar landing site. More than five teams are actively working toward undertaking this mission. That monetary reward might be the first serious step toward overturning the property rights issues of the Outer Space Treaty, since whoever takes the prize will seek to exploit the Moon’s surface and the objects placed there by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

This may also jump start a return to the Moon for the extraction of resources, especially if there is a discovery of something of value that might be be readily exploited. Regardless, there are many in the space community who believe that many provisions of the Outer Space Treaty has outlived its usefulness.

Your thoughts?


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4 Responses to The Antarctic and Outer Space Treaties after the Cold War: Are They Still Valid?

  1. Reblogged this on Space Thoughts and commented:
    Interesting perspective on the Antarctic and and Outer Space Treaty from Roger Launius’s Blog


  2. Pingback: Antarctica And Space | Transterrestrial Musings

  3. DougSpace says:

    Interesting perspective and I generally agree that the OST is from another time and isn’t clear on the opportunities that we are facing.

    But, I think that the common perspective of looking at what resources make the business case will probably not how it is going to work out. The thing which will be of greatest value from the get-go is the access itself to the Moon and Mars. That is to say that transportation services will be the high-volume item not PGMs, He-3, barren land, or other material resources.

    Short term, the business case for participating companies us the same for the Moon or Mars as it is for LEO. First, excellent revenue from public-private programs to develop the transportation system. Next, excellent revenue providing cargo and crew transportation services in public-private programs. Next, serving sovereign clients who wish to have their astronauts conduct exciting missions on behalf of their citizens. e.g. If the cost of going to the Moon becomes low enough, plenty of nations would love to see their compatriots conduct their own suborbital ‘Apollo program’ (10°) hops to 5-6 different locations before returning to the poles for refueling. This anchor business could itself relay the development costs.

    Longer term, Elon is correct about the business case. It is primarily the intersection between those who want to go with those who can afford to go. The people who can afford to go are primarily are those who, over their lifetime have accumulated enough savings to buy the tickets to go. Those people are older, many of whom are retirees.

    Why do retirees move somewhere (e.g. Sun City)? Because they are miners and wish to make a profit? Because they are inventors and want send their inventions? No, they move not to make money (most are done with that) but for a variety of personal reasons. Likewise, the people who choose to go will likely be going because of some subjective reason about how cool it would be to die on Mars or some such reason that’s valuable to themselves.

    1% of the world’s millionaires spending $500k to move to the Moon or Mars comes to $72 B. Not shabby.

    So, what this means is that, whatever resource is necessary for the transportation system is the resource that’s valuable. Namely: #1 the so-called Peaks of Eternal Light and #2 the areas of high water ice concentration — in other words the polar regions.

    So we need treaties or whatever to address those areas in particular. Longer-term yet, enough people will live off Earth (probably according to their language grouping) such that they’ll probably want to become politically independent. It would be smart to not wait until that becomes an issue before drawing border lines and allowing for s process for political independence.


  4. Greg Barr says:

    I suspect that the issue of the Outer Space Treaty having a chilling effect on private enterprise willingness to exploit space resources is a red herring. An entrepreneur would enter equally willing into an agreement with an international body or a sovereign nation as far as profit motivation is concerned. The Outer Space Treaty’s intent is to prevent claims to ownership by sovereign nations. It is a “basis” for space law. From the perspective of humanity’s expansion into the solar system, sovereign nations are a quaint, but antiquated notion. Of course, if you believe the authors of “The Expanse” we will have sovereign space “places” like planets and asteroid belts. And look where that took the authors . . .


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