The idea of a company exploring for commercial reasons is nothing new. While exploration has always been conducted to satisfy human curiosity, it has almost always had an economic rationale as well.

Think of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada, Jamestown in Virginia, the East India Company in India or the Norwegian whaling expeditions in the Antarctic. These all were done for commerce as well as adventure. Even the Lewis and Clark Expedition — arguably the greatest officially authorized expedition in North American history — was carried out to obtain both scientific and commercial information.

What is new about commercial space exploration is the global context in which the planned exploration will occur, and how the world’s various legal systems will regulate it. Historical explorations were carried out in a world in which most of its inhabitants were unaware that many of the other inhabitants existed. When groups did encounter one another, the most common result was that surprise, avarice, fear or some combination of the three led to conquest, and then profit.

However, today’s space exploration occurs in a time when humanity is well aware that we share the planet. The volatility of one stock market reverberates in exchanges around the world; diseases travel with their hosts on international flights; climate change is restructuring the coastlines of continents that are home to rich and poor nations alike. Law, both national and international, has to factor in these new conditions. 

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