How Star Trek is influencing real-life space law

Ever since Star Trek first boldly went where no one had gone before, its commitment to a utopian future has captured the imaginations of people around the world. The show has been cited as an inspiration by many scientists, including those now working in the space industry. NASA launched the Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1976, and the United States Space Force (USSF) has a logo that reminds many fans of the one for the United Federation of Planets.

One of the many people inspired by Star Trek was Michelle Hanlon. Hanlon is the founder of a Connecticut-based nonprofit called For All Moonkind, a volunteer-led organization that seeks to preserve the landing sites of the Apollo program on the moon, and other evidence of humanity’s first steps into outer space.

Hanlon is a career attorney who for a long time believed that she wouldn’t be able to put her interest in outer space to practical use, having not studied science or engineering during her school years. However, after the head of the European Space Agency, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, made an offhand comment about Chinese astronauts possibly removing the American flag from the Apollo 11 site, Hanlon decided to investigate what could be done to preserve the moon sites for future generations. She came across the field of space law and obtained her master’s degree in 2017.

The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise flies free after being released from NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) during one of five free flights carried out at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California in 1977, as part of the Shuttle program’s Approach and Landing Tests (ALT). (Photo by Armstrong Flight Research Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) | Public Domain)

What is Space Law?

While “space law” may sound like science-fiction — I picture alien races arguing over trade deals gone wrong — it’s a real thing that already exists in our time. With the space sector continuing to grow in size and its value to the global economy rocketing upwards, we need a very particular set of rules and regulations governing how to act in outer space.

Space law has its roots in the Cold War, when treaties like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty were born of genuine fears that one side would utilize space for offensive purposes such as the delivery of nuclear weapons. Treaties of this era were designed to promote peace and keep space neutral, but there’s little chance they would be ratified today in light of modern advancements. Nowadays, nations are not only more willing to break international norms but become increasingly concerned by the effects of climate change, overpopulation, and depleted resources. For All Moonkind is concerned that as countries (and private entities like SpaceX) once again set their sights on the moon and beyond, the legacy of the early pioneers like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could be destroyed.

Defending the Final Frontier

For All Moonkind was heavily involved in the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act passed by the Senate in July 2019 and made law on December 31 of last year. The Act makes it a rule that “all U.S. government licenses related to space include requirements preserving the Apollo landing sites.” It ensures that corporate entities such as Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin maintain the integrity of what has gone before.

“I have long advocated for the preservation of the Apollo artifacts, which hold deep cultural, historical and scientific value for not only the United States but for all of humanity,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in a statement at the time. “It is important that NASA and the United States lead the way in guiding responsible behavior in space, and this legislation to preserve our human heritage in space is, itself, one small step in practicing that leadership.”

Ideally, Hanlon would like to see the Apollo sites turned into a park and preserved in the same way historic sites are maintained on Earth, telling Politico in 2019 that she compares the area to places like Williamsburg that need to be maintained for future generations as a source of information and inspiration. “A student came up with the idea of cable cars that could stretch from [the Russian] Luna 2 [site] and zig-zag over the historic sites,” she said, adding that For All Moonkind “absolutely believe the sites should be awed over.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (This image or video was catalogued by NASA Headquarters of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) | Public Domain)

However, the fight to preserve both history and the rule of law in space cannot be a fight limited to the United States alone. More and more countries beginning their own programs to send a “wagon train to the stars,” as Gene Roddenberry once said.

While space law in the Star Trek universe is the prevue of the United Federation of Planets, in the real world, it comes under the auspices of the United Nations and, if necessary, the International Court of Justice. That body has its own United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, which works to promote international cooperation and the peaceful exploration of space. And Hanlon had high praise for another UN body, The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space:

[They’ve] done a really great job of keeping space peaceful. … What’s really fantastic is people are there, and they’re talking to each other. They may not agree, but they all listen. They are the ideal body to talk about preservation in space. What we need is an international convention, no question. … We need to figure out how we’re going to delineate who is where and who does what where.

To bring this about, Hanlon is working with several international partners and governments to try and pass a resolution at the UN to protect outer space sites of historical value. Speaking with SYFY WIRE, she says that For All Moonkind has received plenty of “positive feedback” and “informal support” for their outreach campaigns.

However, convincing many differing governments and groups to unite for any common cause is always difficult. Ram Jakhu, an associate professor of law at McGill University and a space law expert, says that anything “framed as something that’s overseen or controlled by the U.S.” will be “a problem” for other groups given tensions with countries like Russia and China.

But Hanlon remains optimistic, again taking inspiration from Star Trek and believing that we can only effectively protect the history of the Space Race if countries come together to form a single front of international cooperation. Hanlon says that the show’s diversity encouraged and inspired her. She grew up with a Polish father and Chinese mother and idolized George Takei, who played Sulu on the Original Series and was one of the first positive Asian role models on television.

I’ve never felt that I couldn’t do what I wanted because of my gender or race because I grew up with Star Trek… The diversity [in] Star Trek was a reflection of my life; I was shocked to not see it when I came back to the U.S.

While Hanlon and For All Moonkind continue to lead the charge on reforming space law, they’re also raising awareness about our history. The group is currently compiling an interactive database of the Apollo landing sites on the moon and is planning to build a website where visitors can learn more about For All Moonkind’s mission and the Apollo Program.

Beyond the Moon

For All Moonkind is also raising the alarm about the possibility that states will attempt to claim parts of the moon as their own. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty treaty prohibited “any government or international entity from claiming property on the moon,” but with conversations happening about the construction of a permanent moonbase and even colonizing Mars, Hanlon points out that “the moon is going to be very crowded soon…[E]veryone thinks they have so much time, but it’s really around the corner.”

The Outer Space Treaty forbids the “national appropriation” of outer space, and debate rages over whether this statement includes the activities of non-governmental entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin. The Paris-based International Institute of Space Law (IISL) argues that it does, while the backers of the proposed Space Settlement Prize Act argue it does not.

The Act is a draft law proposed by The Space Settlement Institute that describes itself as “a multi-billion dollar incentive for private companies to finance and build permanent settlements on the Moon and/or Mars.” Some have advocated for the United States withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty to advance its own projects and create colonies on the Moon and Mars. The effect likely would be the collapse of the treaty as geopolitical rivals also withdrew.

The nature of space exploration is changing. While the interest of private corporations will undoubtedly allow for new milestones to be reached at a quick pace, it will also become increasingly difficult to ensure that space doesn’t become a new front for exploitation. Robert Pearlman, another For All Moonkind board member, agrees with Hanlon and says that the answer is cooperation.

Star Trek is an inspiration, from a regulatory standpoint. The Prime Directive, where you do no harm, is the way we approach the idea that the solar system doesn’t belong to anyone. The flag we planted wasn’t a symbol that we own it, just that we were there.

While space law exists and international treaties are supposed to ensure the integrity of space, such treaties exist only while powerful nations can benefit. As Jeff Bezos shoots himself into space, there may come a day when exploiting the untold riches of asteroids and forming colonies away from our own dying planet are seen as “necessary.” Such a move would end the era of international cooperation regarding space travel and create a rush for resources and territory, making space a new frontier for humanity’s endless divisions. In this scenario, humanity’s interstellar adventure would be something far from Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for Star Trek.

Perhaps Captain Archer said it best in the Star Trek Enterprise episode “Dear Doctor”: “[S]omeday my people are going to come up with some sort of doctrine, something that tells us what we can and can’t do out here; should and shouldn’t do. But until somebody tells me that they’ve drafted that directive, I’m going to have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play god.”

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