WASHINGTON – An executive order by the White House April 6 aims to establish international support for the US position that space resources can be used by companies and organizations, and to ward off alternative international legal systems.
The executive order calls on the Department of Foreign Affairs to lead interagency efforts to encourage other countries to adopt the US position supporting “safe and sustainable operations for public and private recovery and use of space resources.” It would follow the federal law in the form of the Competitiveness Act in Commercial Space of 2015, which gives American companies rights to the space resources they extract.
“Americans should have the right to conduct commercial exploration, recovery and use of space resources, in accordance with applicable law. External space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not see it as a global public, “says the order, signed by President Donald Trump. “Consequently, it should be US policy to encourage international support for public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, in accordance with applicable law.”
The order explicitly opposes the lunar agreement, sometimes known as the moon treaty, which treats the moon and other celestial organs as “the common heritage of humanity” and would establish an international agency to control the use of such resources. The United States and most other major spacecraft nations rejected the final version of the lunar agreement in the late 1970s, and so far the treaty has been ratified by only 18 countries.
“Support policy for the recovery and use of space resources is important in creating a stable and predictable investment environment for commercial space innovators and entrepreneurs, and it is crucial for long-term sustainability for human exploration and development of the moon, Mars and other destinations,” said a senior administrative official , speaking in the background, in a conversation with reporters about the new executive order.
Planning for the executive order began last year, the official said, but was ultimately linked to the release of NASA on April 2 by a report describing its long-term plans for sustainable monthly exploration. It included the development of on-site resource utilization technology to use water ice or other lunar materials to create fuel, oxygen and other materials, “enabling sustainable surface operations with diminishing soil resource needs.”
Another factor at the time was the status of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of External Space (COPUOS), a forum where issues such as the use of space resources are discussed. The COPUOS Legal Subcommittee, scheduled for late March, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the U.N. has delayed the entire COPUOS meeting from June until at least the middle of August.
“We are getting the Foreign Ministry to reach out to our counterparts, partners, because we still naturally want to talk about international cooperation on Artemis,” the official said. “When the NASA plan was out, we thought it was important to then submit this statement about our approach to using space resources.”
The executive order does not require a new treaty or a similar binding international agreement, but a series of bilateral or multilateral agreements with countries that share US views on space resources.
The official declined to name any specific countries the United States may already be talking to on the subject, but noted that some countries have either adopted laws similar to the United States on space resources, such as Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, or otherwise issued statements in support of the American method.
“There’s not a whole lot that’s new here,” said Chris Johnson, space storage advisor for the Secure World Foundation, in an interview. It includes the rejection of the lunar agreement and the concept of space as a “global public”, but continued support for the outer space treaty.
The executive order, he said, will strengthen a debate about how the use of space resources will be controlled. “As of 2020, the conversation is no longer irrespective of whether it is legal or illegal to use space resources,” he said. “The conversation now at international level is, do we need a new international regime? How do we manage this in a sustainable way? “
He said that when the issue of space resources was discussed in recent years, some countries proposed the Moon Agreement as a model for an international regime. “It made many nervous because these are rules negotiated in the 1970s for activity that has not yet arisen.”
Johnson said he believes it is likely that the United States is already talking to “like-minded” countries on the subject. It can help strengthen the American view in any discussions at COPUOS or the U.N. General Assembly, and note that the consensus-based approach from COPUOS means that it takes a long time to develop any rules or guidelines for space issues.
“In the meantime, there will be many hand-wringing and scratching heads in other capitals around the world about what this means,” he said.