Opportunities for the President and Congress to Ensure that Regulatory Agencies Do Not Improperly Use the Outer Space Treaty to Deny Access to Space or Impose Burdensome Costs

There has been a lot of discussion in the past couple of years about whether and how the Outer Space Treaty applies to private companies such as lunar habitat operators and asteroid miners, and whether these private actors may be denied access to space until Congress passes a law authorizing them.  Additionally, there is continuing discussion over whether and how the federal government may apply NASA’s planetary protection policy to private actors in space.  As discussed on this blog and as I have testified, under the law the regulatory agencies may not deny private actors access to space or impose planetary protection on private actors.  What should be done when not everyone agrees?

Solutions are available. The President by Executive Order, or the Congress through legislation, could ensure that NASA, the State Department, and the regulatory agencies do not deny private operators access to space by attempting to enforce treaty provisions that do not apply and are not self-executing.  This could be done for both Article VI of the Treaty, which requires countries who signed the treaty to authorize and continuously supervise their “non-governmental entities,” and for Article IX’s mandate to avoid harmful contamination of celestial bodies.  Its “planetary protection policy” is how NASA avoids harmful contamination from its own activities.

Because neither of these parts of the Treaty are self-executing, and because they are thus not domestically enforceable federal law, the President could ensure that regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as NASA and the State Department, do not deny access to space to private operators on the basis of Articles VI or IX.  An Executive Order is a perfect vehicle for ensuring that relevant portions of the government are reminded to comply with existing law.

Congress could follow a similar approach.  It could through legislation also direct the regulators that they may not deny or attempt to deny access to space on the basis of non-self-executing treaty provisions, including both Articles VI and the harmful contamination provisions of Article IX.

Authorization and Continuing Supervision.

The FAA’s press release about its 2016 favorable payload review of Moon Express’s operation of a spacecraft and lunar vehicle shows that the FAA is attempting to enforce Article VI against private actors, even without implementing legislation from Congress.  The FAA noted that Article VI requires authorization and supervision of the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, and that the FAA consulted with and considered comments from the Department of State. With the State Department’s concurrence, the FAA announced that because it was able to enforce the representations that Moon Express made in its application for a payload review, this particular favorable payload determination complied with Article VI.

The FAA also made sure to note, however, that not all non-traditional missions would necessarily lend themselves to such a favorable outcome, and future missions may require Congress to grant the FAA additional authority “to ensure conformity with the Outer Space Treaty.” In other words, the FAA believes it has the legal ability or obligation to deny access to space to entities not authorized and continuously supervised under current law.

Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

The United States itself is in compliance with Article VI because the treaty leaves the decisions about how to comply with its rather ambiguous terms to each country. By its own terms, Article VI legally does not and cannot prohibit space operations by the commercial sector.  Instead Article VI leaves it to each country to decide which particular activities require regulation, how that regulation will be carried out, and with how much supervision. Accordingly, if Congress hasn’t said that a certain activity, such as lunar harp playing, requires authorization and continuing supervision then lunar harp playing does not.

Additionally, because Article VI is not self-executing, and because the Supreme Court in Medellin ruled that non-self-executing treaties are not domestically enforceable federal law, the agencies may not enforce this treaty provision against the private sector.  Just as in Medellin where a President could not unilaterally impose a treaty obligation on the states, regulatory agencies should not attempt to impose treaty obligations on the private sector without Congressional action.   An Executive Order could ensure that the agencies abide by this.  So could Congress by legislation.

Planetary Protection.  The harmful contamination provisions of the Treaty also call out for clarification.  Although NASA and the State Department are not regulatory agencies, they could use the consultation process of the Federal Aviation Administration’s payload review to attempt to apply NASA’s planetary protection policy, and so should be included in the directives of any Executive Order or new law.  In order to prevent such attempts, an Executive Order or a new law could note that the bulk of the Outer Space Treaty’s requirements apply to “States Parties,” and the United States and its agencies should not improperly interpret those provisions as applying to the private sector.

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