"The man who sold the moon": Space – the universal public good or the final frontier of commodities?

Short thesis

Space once again is hyped as the next big thing. ISS' astronauts are superstars on Twitter, Mars Rover, Rosetta probe, Philae lander, and the Pluto flyby of New Horizons are landmark publicity events. For the first time, we see also private enterprise in space, ranging from rockets for space transport to exploring economic exploitation of asteroids. But how do we as humankind want space to be conquered? Which line should space law draw between public good and private endeavor?


Astronautics – unmanned as well as crewed space travel – has returned to the public consciousness. Spectacular successes of planetary exploration with probes for the first time actually landing on a comet, or sending high resolution images of Ceres and Pluto. Astronauts like Chris "Cmdr" Hadfield, Samantha "Sam" Christoforetti, or Alexander "Astro_Alex" Gerst have followers in their hundred thousands on Twitter. Movies such as 'Martian', 'Gravity' or 'Interstellar', and books like 'SevenEves' or 'Hieroglyph' have brought space flight back to culture and entertainment, too.

Economic enterprise in space is no longer restricted to sending up satellites. Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin compete with governmental organizations like NASA, ESA, or Roscosmos on all fields in astronautics, adding their services to “traditional” space logistics. Bold ventures taken by this new competition are e.g. floating launchpads, reusable vehicles. Visonary projects like stratospheric launch platforms or space elevators are taken into consideration. Companies like Planetary Resources even aim for asteroids to exploit their precious metals.

However, are the stars just another commodity? Or do we still regard the resources of the solar system as public goods?

With the 'Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act', the U.S. now grant their citizens the right to claim ownership of material they obtain from asteroids. Thus it is worthwhile taking a closer look at space law, where it is enacted, and its rights and duties.

Let's also take a look at the culture and ethics we envision for humankind in space, and if we expect Robert Heinlein's famous novel to become reality: "The man who sold the moon".