Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are racing to establish a presence in space. But what rights and obligations come with that?
It’s not clear what the rules are, even as the $460 billion space industry is growing quickly.
Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by Mr. Branson, announced on Thursday that it would launch its first commercial spaceflight this month, joining Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Mr. Musk’s SpaceX in sending ticketed passengers to space. But travel is just one emerging corner of the industry, which is mostly fueled by U.S. and international government contracts. The sector includes companies in the fields of satellites and communications, solar power, manufacturing, and even mining. One, Orbital Assembly, hopes to open a luxury extraterrestrial hotel by 2025.
Citigroup analysts project that space businesses will reach a trillion dollars in revenue by 2040.
All this activity raises legal questions.
In theory, space belongs to everyone. In 1967, as the United States and the Soviet Union were building up their nuclear arsenals, the United Nations signed a treaty that says no country can claim territory in space. “We didn’t want to bring the Cold War into space,” Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the air and space law program at the University of Mississippi, told DealBook.
Since then, a U.N. space committee has made four more treaties and five sets of principles covering areas like arms control and liability for damage caused by space objects. All are premised on the notion that space “should be devoted to enhancing the well-being of all countries and humankind, with an emphasis on promoting international cooperation.”
That perspective is about to collide with reality, said Curt Blake, a space lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and the former C.E.O. of a space start-up. “Humans have done such a bad job regulating anything of common good, like the oceans and air,” he said. “Are we going to be better at caring for the moon?”
One upcoming test is a race between China and the United States to get to the poles of the moon to mine water, which could make it possible to produce fuel in space. There is little understanding of what will happen when they both get there.
“Will they live on separate sides or dot their bases?” Ms. Hanlon asked. “We don’t know because we have these regulatory gaps.”
Another potential conflict is brewing over 170 million pieces of debris like satellites abandoned in the Earth’s orbit, known as “space trash,” because their accumulation makes exploration more difficult and dangerous. Since nobody owns space, it isn’t always clear whose responsibility it is to clean it up. In September, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules ordering companies to take down nonfunctioning satellites within five years, down from 25 years.
Lawyers are wrestling with these sorts of issues at gatherings like The Hague Space Diplomacy Symposium this week at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, which focused on cooperation amid rising geopolitical tensions and competition.
The U.S. government has deliberately left some holes. In 2004, Congress imposed a moratorium on safety regulations for commercial space launches, essentially a free pass, or “learning period,” that is set to expire in October. It has lasted so long because there hasn’t been enough development to base new rules on. In April, a report from the RAND Corporation recommended against extending again, and the Federal Aviation Administration is planning more oversight.
Business leaders caution against creating so much regulation that it pushes innovation offshore while recognizing that we need rules. And futurists naturally have a long and expansive view. Many are concerned that we’ll exploit resources in space before we’re able to “access the infinity of the universe,” as Ms. Hanlon put it.
“We just need to hold it together for 200 years,” she said. — Ephrat Livni
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
The Fed takes a breather. At Wednesday’s meeting, the central bank kept interest rates unchanged for the first time in more than a year. But officials suggested that rates would rise more in 2023, as inflation remains “well above” the Federal Reserve’s target.
JPMorgan settles. The bank secured a potential $290 million deal with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, who claimed that the bank had overlooked red flags in his activity because it valued him as a wealthy client. JPMorgan Chase still faces a related lawsuit by the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Bill Gates meets Xi Jinping in Beijing. The Microsoft co-founder is one of the first prominent U.S. business leaders to meet the Chinese leader since the start of the pandemic. Their talks preceded a visit by Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, to China.
Bud Slight. Modelo Especial replaced Bud Light as the best-selling in America, after a boycott by consumers over a promotional post by a transgender influencer. The controversy has spotlighted the challenges that brands and retailers like Adidas and Target have faced in marketing to L.G.B.T.Q. consumers in a polarized political environment.
Michael Jordan nets a big profit. The investors Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall reportedly bought his majority stake in the National Basketball Association’s Charlotte Hornets for $3 billion. Jordan acquired the team in 2010 for $275 million and will retain a minority stake.
Companies may not know when employees use A.I.
In a survey of 4,491 white-collar workers by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman, 39 percent of those who use generative A.I. tools said they had done so without their employer’s knowledge in the last three months.
There are risks if workers use these tools without training, including that they will share private company data or not understand that A.I. tools can produce inaccurate work. (See: the lawyer who ended up citing made-up court cases in a legal brief.)
But there may also be potential. In a report this week, McKinsey estimated that generative A.I. could add $2.6 trillion to $4.4 trillion to the global economy. The research looked at 63 use cases for generative A.I. across 850 occupations, finding that 60 to 70 percent of all work tasks could be automated by currently available technology.
“Employee interest, especially amongst the younger generations, is likely ahead of many of their managers,” said Ana Kreacic, the chief operating officer of Oliver Wyman’s think tank, in an email to DealBook. “Some organizations are leading and some are catching up, but it takes time for best practices to evolve across different industries.”
— How much consumer prices in Sweden rose last month. One potential contributing factor? Beyoncé kicked off her world tour in Stockholm, and fans who flocked to the city to see the singer pushed up the prices for hotel rooms and restaurant meals, according to Sweden’s statistics agency.
On our radar: ‘Winner Sells All’
Walmart and Amazon’s battle to dominate retail has been an epic corporate fight. In “Winner Sells All,” which publishes on Tuesday, the business journalist Jason Del Rey chronicles the clash, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, in illustrative detail. Mr. Del Rey has covered e-commerce for more than 10 years, and many of Amazon’s and Walmart’s top executives agreed to interviews for the book, as did their workers. Kirkus Reviews called it “an eye-opening look at a battle of corporate titans.”
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