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How Space Regulation Works

What, No Starfleet?

Shows like "Star Trek" portray Earth as united under one government -- usually a council of fit, jumpsuit-clad, utopians who call the shots for everything from domestic defense to issuing medallions for space taxis. Probably, they have mandatory group sing-alongs over lunch, too.

Until that golden future arrives, however, we're stuck with herding cats -- feral, territorial, claw-baring cats.

Relax. It can be done. Take the Convention on International Civil Aviation, aka the Chicago Convention, which governs international air travel. Since 1947, 191 countries have agreed to be legally bound by the convention's articles, which work because they have something that space law lacks: an oversight authority, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with enough power to enforce and set standards.

Or consider the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Established in 1865 to coordinate telegraph and telephone practices, it later added radio to its repertoire. Then, as the space age dawned, it began overseeing satellites, making sure their radio bursts didn't bring static to the lives of other radio users. Today, the ITU sets satellite licensing and operation standards, and coordinates orbits for 193 member states (and counting).

By comparison, the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is some pretty weak sauce.Founded in 1959, the committee lacks the teeth of the aviation authority and the wholesale buy-in of the telecom union; should the day come when someone needs to restrain the robber barons of space, the U.N. will need to deputize COPUOS or make way for a new sheriff.

As the ITU and the Chicago Convention show, the key to getting everyone to sit at the same table lies in solving shared problems using enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest is the philosophy behind traffic laws and temporary alliances on "Survivor." Unfortunately, the process tends to resemble the latter more than the former: The global community still struggles to agree on restricted items or enforcement procedures, and agreements are usually carried out at each country's discretion [source: Spencer].

Take, for example, the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), established to slow or halt the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) [source: MTCR]. Though rigorously applied, it remains informal and voluntary.

The 1996 Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies seeks to keep rogue states from getting their unstable hands on dangerous conventional weapons, including rockets and ballistic or cruise missiles with a range of 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) or more [sources: Spencer; Wassenaar].

These agreements serve vital functions, and might one day provide the blueprint for a new space agreement, one that lays down binding standards that are policed by a group with enough clout to see them through. Until then, as long as nations can choose how they comply with the standards set down in the handful of binding and nonbinding space agreements, we are likely to witness a wide range of practices, for good or ill.