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In the Era of Civilian Space Travel, What Laws Do We Bring with Us?

Space travel technology, such as the space elevator, will bring average citizens beyond Earth’s atmosphere sooner than you’d think. What will that do to our understanding of our worlds?

What if getting into space was as easy as stepping into an elevator? A 60,000-mile shaft that shuttled humans through the atmosphere as though they were heading to the top of an office building?

The concept of a so-called space elevator has captivated scientists, engineers, and science-fiction writers for over a century, ever since Russian inventor and physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first wrote about in 1895. Today, we’re closer to realizing it than ever before; experts claim that the technology to pull it off is available right now, and the elevator could be built within a matter of years if the appropriate time and money were dedicated to it. Or, in the words of Professor Ram Jakhu, an expert in international space law at McGill University: “The technology is a minor thing. Anybody can do anything now.”

When anybody can do anything with technology, the possibilities for human expansion are limitless—and sobering. When anyone has the power to leave the planet in a handful of minutes, what impact will it have on our behavior, or our understanding of the world, and how will we address it?

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

Lawmakers are already starting to create guidelines about trade, ownership, and business up in outer space, things that hinge on human beings’ understandings of certain concepts, like social expectations, property, and land. If going into space dramatically impacts the way we think about these things, the rules that we’ve crafted for ourselves may need to change in kind.

“The concept of property or private property is as old as humanity. And it’s almost impossible, or extremely difficult, to reclaim that concept. The physical environment of space [is] very different,” Jakhu says.

And the picture is further complicated by the entrance of the private sector into space exploration and travel: While governments and the United Nations have put together legal structures to monitor interstellar activity and delineate who can own what in space, it may be harder to enforce those laws as it becomes easier to get to space and, as a result, more players enter the space exploration game.

On the bright side, though, this could be a rare opportunity for nations to come together across continents, languages, and philosophies, and come to agreements on how to govern in space. Involved nations are well aware that the stakes in space exploration are so high that peace must be maintained, and an arms races in space must be avoided at all costs (and, since this includes the prohibition of nuclear arms in space, the fate of the planet might hang in the balance).

So, while space may be closer to us than ever before, our excitement should be tempered by caution and thoughtfulness. Space law is a shell structure as it stands right now, and governments and private entities alike need to treat space travel as not only an opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation, but also as an opportunity to collaborate across borders and keep the risks to our planet contained to its atmosphere.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of MOVE, our discussion about how today’s innovations could shape what we know about transportation, exploration, and navigation.