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How Space Regulation Works


Who Watches the Spacemen?

Let's say your kids take your brand-new spaceship for a joyride. While doing doughnuts around the International Space Station, they trade paint with a Soyuz capsule, which then clips a weather satellite, popping off a bolt that falls through the atmosphere to puncture the wing of a Dubuque-bound 747.

Aside from making a strong argument against personal spaceships (or flying cars), this raises some rather important questions on the topic of space authorization and supervision (see sidebar).

According to the Outer Space Treaty, nations must authorize and supervise the space-related goings-on of their private and public groups, much as they do with maritime ships flying their flags. The Liability Convention establishes ways to resolve claims, which boil down to, "you break it, you bought it." In the case of our fictional fender bender, that means the U.S. government will foot all the bills -- at least until Uncle Sam gets around to suing you and sending your kids to juvie.

Authorizing countries face a tough task. They must balance the competing needs of internal security, external defense and economic development, while juggling an alphabet soup of agencies in charge of each. In the U.S., for example, here's who has a stake in the game:

  • Department of Transportation
  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Defense
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • Department of State

Oh, and add in various states, counties and municipalities, which also have jurisdiction over aspects of aerospace industry regulation [sources: Sterns and Tennen].

So, really, it's a wonder you ever got a license for your space jalopy in the first place (we're sure the registration fees were astronomical).

If authorization is tricky, then supervision is an outright mess. How can the global community confirm that its members are behaving themselves? It's hard enough for U.N. inspectors to gain access to earthbound biolabs and suspected nuclear enrichment sites. Good luck monitoring all activity in space.

The problem dates back to the Outer Space Treaty, which purposely played coy on the topic of supervision standards. The vague approach sufficed in an age when space was the sole domain of national programs, run by countries with vested interests in sustaining global stability [source: Spencer]. Can it hold up in the post-Cold-War, post-9/11 era, in which terrorists and rogue states seek missiles with which to launch weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and private companies challenge the coping capacity of the blunt, decades-old regulatory structures currently in play?

Our globalized economy depends on the communications, information and electronic transactions that satellites provide. We live in a world where technology is steadily expanding access to space, where nations are embroiled in asymmetrical conflicts and where economic globalization spreads and deepens with each passing day. To cope, space regulation must evolve, too -- as must the sparse community of regulatory bodies that currently supervise the wild black yonder.