Who Actually Owns Space?

Space is a vast and open area that has just as much to explore as Earth’s oceans. With an entire novel landscape outside of Earth, there are much more resources to uncover and use. Endless possibilities could stem from the usage of space’s natural resources. This leads to the concept of space archaeology, defined “…as the study of “the material culture relevant to space exploration that is found on Earth and in outer space (i.e. exoatmospheric material) and that is clearly the result of human behavior,” (Walsh and Gorman 2021). General archaeology focuses on the past, and constantly questions who owns the past. However, with space archaeology, technically no one owns the entirety of space. Many countries, such as the USA, have just implanted their own morals and desires into the concept of space. For monetary gain, business enterprises, or for the accumulation of resources, numerous countries that partake in the race to space are always in effect. 

Space’s vastness inherently gives no ownership to any one person or country. Because much of space is unexplored, it cannot technically be claimed. However, countries and their people still insist space is for themselves alone. “It said, on the background of stars and stripes, ‘The Moon is ours. Don’t be landing your stanky rocket on the Moon’,” (Gorman 219). Even in space exploration, discriminations are evident. Though people are still prideful about claiming space, the credit is not given to those that actually contribute to the advancement of space exploration. For example, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American women who contributed to making pivotal NASA space launch possible, largely go unnoticed due to their gender and skin color.

Figure 1. Katherine Jonson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan

“Our very presence on other celestial bodies, whether in human form or through robot avatars, changes them. They are altered physically and conceptually, becoming part of a human cultural landscape in a new way. We cannot land, sample, build settlements or mines and then whisk away as if nothing happened – our chemical and mechanical traces are now part of the planet, asteroid or moon,” (Gorman 225). Similar to how archaeological sites on Earth are formed by the numerous people who alter them and leave a footprint on them, human presence and effect in space will always be felt. Contributions to space archaeology are not made possible by one particular owner but by the combination of all those who have affected and used space for their benefit. Therefore, not one body or group owns space, but everyone who has affected it. 

Figure 2. A space archaeological site (Stevens 2017)


Gorman, A. (2020). Dr space junk vs the universe: Archaeology and the future. The MIT Press. 

Lem, P., & Rocchio, L. (n.d.). Space archaeology: In the realm of resolution. NASA. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91071/space-archaeology-in-the-realm-of-resolution 

Walsh, J., & Gorman, A. (2021). A method for space archaeology research: The International Space Station Archaeological Project. Antiquity, 95(383), 1331-1343. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.114

More readings

Gannon, M. I. (2022, April 1). Space archaeology takes off. Scientific American. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/space-archaeology-takes-off/


2 thoughts on “Who Actually Owns Space?

  1. Are there any laws that protect archaeological sites in space or related to space archaeology? For example, is the first lunar landing site protected?

    • Most recently, in 2020, the One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act protected Apollo landing sites, including the famed one by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, from damage from US-licensed space activity.

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