SPACE!: Newt, International Law, and the Extraterrestrial Commons

For those of you without Twitter streams fueled purely by snark, it may have slipped your notice that Newt Gingrich is, and always has been, a giant nerd, particularly when it comes to the territory beyond our atmosphere. Well, today, campaigning in Florida, Newt has managed to out-do himself:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called for the creation of a permanent lunar colony that could become the nation’s 51st state and a re-dedication to sending a man to Mars during a sprawling campaign speech Wednesday in Florida.

“I am sick of being told we have to be timid and I’m sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old,” Gingrich told a cheering crowd.

Gingrich said that his vision was on par with President Lincoln’s call for a transcontinental railroad, the Wright brothers’ push for manned flight, and President Kennedy’s vision to send a man to the moon. Later, he described the rally as “the second great launch of the adventure John F. Kennedy started.”

And in what Gingrich himself described as “the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” the former House Speaker called for a “Northwest ordinance for space.”

“By the end of my second term, we will have a permanent colony on the moon and it will be American,” Gingrich said.

From some politicians, this would be called “pandering”. For Newt, this is known as “Wednesday”.

Putting aside the untold scientific and logistical problems surrounding Newt’s goals, for all his excitement over development of space, I somehow doubt that he has very much of an idea of what the current law and issues surrounding the use of space consist of. Or if he did, that he wouldn’t like them very much. So I am hereby appointing myself the Gingrich 2012 campaign’s Chief Stellar Law Advisor. You’re welcome, Mr. Speaker.

So where to begin? For starters, let’s make clear that we can’t lay claim to the entirety of the Moon. While the temptation to revert to colonial rules of “We have a flag there, it’s totally ours” is strong, it doesn’t quite work that way. Why you ask? Because of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, better known as The Outer Space Treaty.

“A treaty,” you say, “surely we can’t be have signed and ratified such folly”. Well, we were actually one of the main authors of the text. Bear in mind, when this was drafted, the United States and Soviet Union were still mortal enemies and both possessed space-faring capabilities. It was in our best interest to declare that nobody get the entirety of the Moon, rather than fighting over it. What’s more, the Outer Space Treaty gave us the comfort of knowing that the Russians weren’t going to pull a Ripley on us and attempt to nuke us from orbit.

“Well, the Soviets aren’t a threat anymore, what’s to stop us from just taking the Moon?” That question would be fundamentally flawed in nature. First, there’s no viable weapons systems in existence to actual initiate combat in space. What taking the moon would involve includes arming whatever vehicles we design to replace the space shuttle to take us into orbit, which also doesn’t exist, with conventional missiles.

This leads us to a point that the Bush Administration recognized and fought against the Space Preservation Treaty to ensure: there is no law preventing weaponization of space with conventional missiles. The Obama Administration has backed away from this position, but you can bet that Newt would be heavily in favor of returning to it.

As Chief Stellar Law Advisor, I’d have to weigh in strongly against such a move. If the sea is a global commons, space is most certainly an extraterrestrial commons. There are currently a total of ten countries with the capacity to place artificial satellites into orbit. There are several more who can create satellites, but lack the mechanism to actually place them.

These satellites affect our daily lives in an ever-growing number of ways and to endanger the right of all states to launch items into space, free from the threat of molestation, is vital to our future. Only through international cooperation and dialogue through mechanisms like the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), the UN’s body to discuss matters of space, can we hope to maintain the freedom of all states to launch satellites. As a sidebar, I would strongly press Mr. Gingrich to invest more heavily in the UN body with the best acronym in history: UN-SPIDER.

I’m sure there are several out there, including Newt himself, that will argue that the only way we ensure that space remain open is through the same way we do the seas, through being able to project force into the sphere. To that, I counter that the terrestrial methods that we use to influence other states on security matters will remain viable in any future that involves space. Much as the introduction of drones into the theatre does not affect warfare at its core, so too introduction of the space and cyber domains as potentially contested spheres will not fundamentally change the way that states interact with each other. And just as arms control can be achieved landside, so must it be striven for in space.

It’s with the openness of space in mind that the United States has recently announced that it  will be working with the European Union in drafting an International Code of Conduct for Space. As more states gain the ability to launch first satellites, then humans, into space, the already cluttered orbit above the Earth will become even more so. A Gingrich Administration would be doing the United States a disservice if it were to withdraw from these talks, as it almost inevitably would, as it is in our interest to ensure that states abide by a common set of rules of keeping the upper atmosphere clear of debris. Going it alone won’t cut it when it comes to space, especially if we’re to ever make it to the Moon and beyond.

So to sum up, even if Newt’s dreams of moon mining (and whaling) were possible, he’d find that the body of law surrounding his lunar activities more extensive than expected. What’s more, he’d discover that the idea of the United States maintaining exclusive control of Luna and other heavenly bodies would be becoming more and more laughable. It’s almost as ridiculous as the idea that we’re going to have a permanent moon base in just nine years. But still not as laughable as a Gingrich Administration.


One Comment to “SPACE!: Newt, International Law, and the Extraterrestrial Commons”

  1. Excellent commentary! Now if we can just get the UN to approve apportioning equal “Economic Development Zones” on the Moon, so that every nation can have access to their fair share (even if they can’t use it just yet), we might be able to peacefully start developing the resources on the Moon, and sidestep the whole “It’s totally ours..” argument. We’ve got good pictures. We can plot out clearly delineated portions of the Moon and every country could get a share, reserving most of the Moon for historical and aesthetic values and possible future countries, but allowing countries and organizations that want to develop things, to go ahead and do so without the sovereignty and ownership issues that currently cloud any questions of developing Moon resources.

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