The Law of Unintended Consequences


In the process of researching the Virginia man‘s quest to claim unclaimed land on the Egyptian-Sudanese border to make his daughter a princess, I ran across (not for the first time, granted) the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.


Basically, it holds that no celestial body is able to appropriated or claimed by any individual, corporate body, or national entity, and that any development of said must be spread for the benefit of all humanity.

Lofty, ideologically warm and fuzzy, completely theoretical in 1967 – and utterly, destructively idiotic to the longterm practical development of spaceflight.

A 1950s artist’s impression of a moon base. x-ray delta one

A 1950s artist’s impression of a moon base. x-ray delta one

Here’s a quote from The Conversation by Steven Freeland, a professor of International Law at the University of Western Sydney that sprains my brain trying to figure out how someone could honestly not see how this principle accomplishes exactly the opposite of the intended goal of promoting the development of humanity off this tiny-ish blue marble we are all on:

“[T]his principle of non-appropriation helps to protect outer space from the possibility of conflict driven by territorial or colonisation-driven ambitions. In this regard, it is a necessary requirement to promote the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.”

So, explain why would anyone spend any money, time, or effort whatsoever to develop spaceflight if you subsequently…can’t actually control the fruits of such development?

I mean, look, I am the first person to be skeptical of national political machinations, corporate malfeasance, and general douchebaggery as perfected by homo sapiens. I trust the principle of corporate beneficence about as far as I trust the principle of car salesmanship – an unapologetic booster of unfettered capitalism I am not.


That being said, this is no longer a theoretical proposition or a problem solely for a public policy student’s dissertation.

There are currently three active, theoretically feasible, plans for mining asteroids, and this braindead piece of legislation has actually thrown these plans into legal limbo since the treaty effectively bars such ventures.


Want to see permanent settlement of Mars? The Moon? Europa? Yeah, by international law that is actually illegal, because the second you use local resources such as, well, water, silicates, whatever, said nation, individual, or corporation is in violation of the treaty.

To be sure, there are several potential methods of getting around this, such as operating under the flag of one of the nations in grey or yellow on the map below – those who have neither signed nor ratified the treaty.


Alternatively, one could see the exercise of a deliberate act of abandoning association with any signatory of the treaty – hello there, brand new Sovereign Republic of Ceres! Another possibility is simply that people simply ignore the treaty as unenforceable when it comes to that. We’ll see eventually, one way or the other.

Right now, this ill-considered treaty does nothing but discourage private development of spaceflight, introducing unnecessary uncertainty and unproductive roadblocks into a venture that ultimately benefits our entire species.

In other words, exactly the opposite of what the treaty was supposed to do.

1 thought on “The Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. Perhaps the treaty, as you say, causing legal limbo to the efforts of for-profit ventures, is a good thing. I mean, before we go looking to exploit space for more and more resources, maybe we should stop and figure out how to efficiently manage the resources of planet earth without destroying and depleting it.

    Perhaps we should learn to value space exploration for what it is and the unknowable benefits we receive from it, without needing to be at war with the Russians or something as “our” motivation for doing so.

    I realize much of that is idealistic. But perhaps we ned some of that idealism to become realism for us to be ready to leave this place, to leave the crib, so to speak.

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