The commercialization of space is here. International law isn’t prepared. | Space

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As human access to space expands, the influx of new actors promises to forever alter the dynamics of space. The head-to-head U.S.–Soviet rivalry that once dominated the Space Race will evolve into something more inclusive—but also messier. Aspiring space nations, such as Luxembourg, India, and China, together with new categories of nonstate actors, including large industrial players, startups, and universities, raise questions about how we should regulate space. Explosive commercialization is particularly challenging for existing space law, whose foundations were set in the 1960s and designed with national governments in mind.

This rapidly changing environment is dramatized in “Little Assistance,” a new Future Tense Fiction story from Stephen Harrison. The story follows the first judge in space, who is considering a case that highlights how public–private collaborations and commercialization are testing existing national and international space laws.

The story propels us into the future, where NASA has contracted with the corporation Stellarco to run its Luna Homestead “settlement”—a claustrophobic off-Earth mining town. Stellarco files suit against NASA when its drill is damaged after hitting a pocket of hardened lunar bedrock. Who should be responsible for the cost of repairing the drill, and the time and money lost during the process of repair? Commercial mining is an underdeveloped aspect of international space law, and as someone who researches the future of property rights in space, I often turn to science fiction like “Little Assistance” to fill in the gaps of what we can expect.

Since the dawn of the Space Race, science fiction writers have been dramatizing the legal and political dimensions of space exploration. For example, in 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein describes a fictional court decision that establishes that the moon is owned by those who reside on it. Stories like…

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