US President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday regarding the public and private exploitation of resources such as water and other minerals in outer space. The substance of the order, labeled “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” directs the Secretary of State to initiate conversations with foreign nations about potential arrangements concerning the harvest of space resources. The order requires the Secretary to provide a report within 180 days detailing the outcome of that effort.
The new executive order is an outgrowth of 2017’s “Space Policy Directive-1,” which among other things created room for commercial partners to join in future human exploration of the moon, Mars and other parts of space. The purpose of Tuesday’s order is to clarify “uncertainty regarding the right to recover and use space resources.” Two earlier international instruments, a 1967 treaty on the use of outer space and the 1979 “Moon Agreement,” have previously addressed the topic. The US and other space-going nations have not joined the latter agreement, which, among other things, would restrict the use of space resources to science. The 1967 treaty is widely ratified and governs weapons in space, encourages international co-operation and generally asserts that space is “free for exploration and use by all States” although “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.”
The president’s Monday order seeks to make clear that “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.” The directive states that “[o]uter space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons.” When the Secretary of State engages in bilateral and multilateral talks on space exploitation, the new order requires the Secretary to “object to any attempt by any other state or international organization to treat the Moon Agreement as reflecting or otherwise expressing customary international law.”
A factsheet circulated alongside Trump’s order opens with the following quote from the president: “After braving the vast unknown and discovering the new world, our forefathers did not only merely sail home—and, in some cases, never to return. They stayed, they explored, they built, they guided, and through that pioneering spirit, they imagined all of the possibilities that few dared to dream.”