(Official SpaceX Photos Flickr)


Opinion: Is the appropriation of outer space by private entities unjust?

A Lincoln Douglas debate topic had a basis on outer space and the rising influence of and investment by private corporations in outer space-related matters. Lincoln Douglas, or LD, is a competitive speaking activity that involves two debaters arguing for and against a resolution that is selected by the National Forensics League. The January/February 2022…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/bmjuniorr/" target="_self">Lauren Lee</a>

Lauren Lee

May 26, 2023

A Lincoln Douglas debate topic had a basis on outer space and the rising influence of and investment by private corporations in outer space-related matters. Lincoln Douglas, or LD, is a competitive speaking activity that involves two debaters arguing for and against a resolution that is selected by the National Forensics League.

The January/February 2022 LD Debate Topic poses a question regarding the issues of the modern civilizations’ ventures into outer space and their advancements in the technology sphere. It states, “Resolved: The appropriation of outer space by private entities is unjust. 

Before approaching the issue, certain terms have to be carefully considered. What, for example, is appropriation? More importantly, what are private entities? According to Oxford English Dictionary, appropriation is “The making of a thing private property, whether another’s or one’s own; taking as one’s own or to one’s own use; concr. the thing so appropriated or taken possession of.”

Private entities are “any person or private group, organization, proprietorship, partnership, trust, cooperative, corporation, or other commercial or nonprofit entity, including an officer, employee, or agent thereof,” as defined by Cornell Law School

The value that must be taken into account is justice. Essentially, a value is a principle or standard by which one evaluates the resolution (therefore, it must be related to the topic). Some common values are Freedom, Utilitarianism, Quality of Life, Life, Individualism, and so on.

Consequentialism should then be considered as the value criterion, or the way one’s case relates to one’s value relates to the resolution, due to it being the doctrine that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences, according to Oxford Languages.

The resolution will be discussed from the two sides in debate: Affirmation, which is for the resolution, and Negation, which is against the resolution.



One point to consider is that private entities will profit with space appropriation at the expense of all of mankind. Firstly, private entity appropriation violates existing space treaties in the UN that protects outer space. The non‑appropriation principle prohibits all property rights in outer space.

According to Rishiraj Baruah and Nandini Paliwal’s 2015 paper “Sustainable Space Exploration and Use: Space Mining in Present and Future Perspectives,” “the interpretation of Art. II of OST [states] that any property title over outer space, including moon and other celestial objects by use or occupation…is prohibited. Such interpretation is also supported by the travaux of the OST8 and state practice as evidenced in U.S. and China. A statement issued by [T]he Board of Directors of IISL also reaffirm[ed] the principle of non‑appropriation…by stating that there can be no private property rights in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies. The fact that a State retains jurisdiction and control over its installations and facilities till they exist in outer space does not mean that it gains ownership over the ‘area.’ It is because under international law, things which are owned by the public, like the seashore or the global commons, cannot be the property of one State based on prescription or adverse possession. The right to use an area exists till the state abandons its installation or it is demolished…This is the freedom of access and use in the commons regime.”

Essentially, the private entities’ appropriation isn’t legalized, and due to their not being a part of the OST, or Outer Space Treaty, private entities are unregulated in their activities and investments in outer space, legal or not. The OST provides the basic framework on international space law.

The Negation may argue that the treaty is outdated and that new or updated treaties will come in the following years; however the OST is the foundation of all treaties related to outer space. It is important to note that the violation of the OST will not be justified and ignored if the violator is a private entity, because other nations will view the private entity’s actions as approved by the nation where the private entity is based.

An inevitable scramble for outer space resources and chaos can ensue; for example, if the U.S. violates the international treaty and begins firing rockets at whim and mining asteroids for the valuable resources it holds (which will be further discussed in the Negation), then what would prevent other countries from violating the treaty as well? The chaos that will ensue from breaking an international treaty only bonded by trust will result in a full-fledged space race, which is arguably already in place.

Not only that, if private companies are to enter space without any restrictions or regulations by laws, then the production of satellites will vastly increase- up to tripling their numbers.  According to Undseth et al from “The Economics of Space Debris in Perspective” at the 2021 8th European Conference on Space Debris, “[T]he use of Earth’s orbits…has intensified… [along with] the increase in the orbital debris population…[T]he number of operational satellites in orbit could…triple in the next five years. When taking into account all…satellite filings, there could be several tens of thousands of operational objects in orbit by 2030. With this level of orbital density,…it is not a question of if a…satellite will collide with debris, but when…[T]he intensifying use of the low-earth orbits raises a number of additional issues ranging from radio interference to light pollution.” The debris left in outer space by the growing commercialization of space will result in the Kessler syndrome.

The “Space Sustainability: Reframing the Debate” adds on, “The overriding concern of those drafting the treaty and creating the international framework was one of security. The geopolitical climate has changed in the fifty years since the OST, with numerous state and private actors taking part in space activity. Similarly, the activity has [gone] through a paradigm shift from being the manifestation of military superiority to that of a commercial activity harness[ing] the profit potential of space-based applications. [T]here is no mention of space debris within the OST. By the time the Space Age was but two decades old,…the debris situation in LEO (or Low Earth Orbits) could reach catastrophic proportions, prompting experts to publish ‘Collision frequency of artificial satellites: The creation of a debris belt’. It warned of the Kessler Syndrome. As the amount of debris objects in a given orbit increases, so would the probability of collisions between them, and if a sizable object hit a satellite it could produce thousands of additional debris objects, which could impact other satellites. Eventually, this cascade effect would produce [a] ‘debris belt’  and render the orbit unusable; in terms of its intended use, the orbit would become [and] unsustainable.” 

Kessler syndrome causes massive impacts to climate and weather prediction with the poor hit harder. The social costs would be “unequally distributed, with lower-income and rural regions more hit….[T]he loss of low earth orbits would have severe impacts on terrestrial applications, for which space observations are only source of data and signals. This applies to polar-orbiting weather and earth observation satellites, which provide essential inputs to weather prediction models, reducing errors and improving forecast accuracy.

The European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts has found that a loss of both European and US polar orbiting satellites would cause a 15-20% reduction in accuracy. [E]stimated benefits from satellite based meteorological observations to the UK economy [is] between GBP 670-1000 million annually. The International Space Station is located at about 400 km altitude. The Chinese Space Station will also have a similar location. Although debris at that altitude decays naturally, it still poses a real collision threat…This could have knock-on effects on other industry segments, such as manufacturing and launch…In some low-income countries, satellite systems may provide more reliable and accurate data and signals than terrestrial alternatives” (“The Economics of Space Debris in Perspective”).

Private companies’ projects such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which requires thousands of spacecraft, only worsens the issue (scientificamerican.com). Amazon’s Project Kuiper, in particular, is seeking to create a mega constellation of up to 3,200 satellites in the near future (scientificamerican.com). In addition, there has been an uptick in the threat of full-on collisions that generate menacing refuse that exacerbates the already bad situation; for example, consider the February 2009 run-in between a dead Russian Cosmos satellite and a commercial Iridium spacecraft, which produced an enormous amount of debris (scientificamerican.com). 

In addition, only greater inequality of wealth and power would result, instead of benefits for the entirety of the human race. Companies planning to appropriate outer space resources are exclusively headed by highly profiting, well-funded CEOs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who possess the capital and resources to make upfront investments in the industry. Since global inequality is already high and rising, the AFF has to prove space exploration will significantly increase it and any benefits from innovation won’t compensate.



In the Negation’s world, in order to uphold Justice, consequentialism should be the value criterion. Some of the strongest arguments on the Negation are the benefits of private companies leading the space race, the spurring of innovation, and the pros of mining celestial bodies. Note that Affirmative has the following burden: To show it is unjust, the Aff. must identify, not just a reason to think appropriating outer space is wrong, but a reason to think that it wrongs someone.

Private companies are arguably necessary for innovation, due to their possession of large funds, and their efficient and quick actions in space development. Some are supported by government agencies such as NASA.

For instance, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Nanoracks were awarded a total of nearly $416 million under NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations project last year, according to CNBC. The space race of the 1950s and 1960s had a “grandiose political purpose but to governments, the returns on investments were too far-off to commit the massive upfront cash outlays. And thus it stalled for 40 years, till a new breed of capitalists emerged,” as reported by CNBC.

Not only is NASA slower in its development, it receives less funding. In addition, there is “reason to think that we may finally be reaching the first stages of a true space-for-space economy. SpaceX’s recent achievements, as well as upcoming efforts by Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic to put people in space sustainably and at scale, mark the opening of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms” (hbr.org).

The environment will benefit from the involvement of private companies, who are helping to make refueling in space possible, which would greatly reduce the need for launches. 

Valuable resources found in outer space, however, have generated an intense interest in planning expeditions to exploit those resources. Though the cost of such an expedition would be high, the payoff in commercial quantities of natural resources nonetheless makes it an appealing prospect. Asteroid mining and helium-3 are two prime resource extractions with great potential and benefits.

For example, a 2009 article in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law explains in lunar mining, “a metallic asteroid only a kilometer in size would provide one billion tons of iron, 200 million tons of nickel, 10 million tons of cobalt, and 20,000 tons of platinum, with a net market value of about $1 trillion. The first mining expeditions in outer space will likely not be for minerals such as these that are commonly available on Earth, however. Rather, [T]he cost and risk of a space mining expedition will likely be justified initially by the prospect of obtaining an exciting new potential energy source that is exceedingly rare on Earth: Helium‐3. It is well known that on Earth, the supply of fossil fuels is limited and their extraction and use harms the environment. Researchers are looking elsewhere for clean, efficient new energy sources. One that shows great promise is isotope helium‐3, which in a fusion reaction can create an ultra efficient, non‐radioactive, clean source of energy. Only trace amounts of helium‐3 have been found on Earth, however — not nearly enough to generate commercial power. Only the moon has the amounts necessary for commercial use. In a fusion reaction, [T]he moon’s estimated helium‐3 resources could produce ten times as much energy as is contained in the Earth’s recoverable coal, oil, and gas combined.”

Helium 3 is a much cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels, and there is an untapped abundance of them on the moon. Off-world extraction of the fuel allows the elimination of the effects of fossil fuel mining on earth. Additionally, having an abundant source of fuel in space makes exploration and possible settlement much more convenient.

Regarding the Kessler Syndrome, private companies will clean up the debris because it is in their best interest. If space is unusable, then they cannot profit. Also, dead satellites can be deorbited and then reused and recycled, which would save resources and drastically decrease the number of debris. In addition, space debris is prone to fall out in months, naturally riding space of the debris. It should be noted that companies are the actual main source of debris (up to 40%), and do not possess the technology to clean it up. 

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