Since the space age began, two competing images have influenced policy debates about space security. One conception sees space as the “final frontier,” a largely lawless environment where conflict is inevitable and superior firepower provides the only reliable protection for satellites and the terrestrial activities that depend on them. The alternative view uses imagery of “the heavens” to suggest that if, and only if, humans can transcend the fear and greed that generate earthly conflict, then there will be a natural harmony of interest that promotes the peaceful use of space for the benefit of all. Neither the “Realist” imagery of unbounded conflict nor the “Idealist” imagery of natural cooperation adequately reflects the amount of effort spent over the past half century on developing rules to manage space operations. When analysts and practitioners do write about the rules for space, they typically focus only on space law, especially those rights and obligations that have been codified by international treaties — another idealized conception of the rules governing space activity.
This paper broadly defines the rules for space as anything that induces regularity or restraint in behavior beyond what would be predicted on the basis of interests and power alone. This includes not only formal laws, but also principles, norms, informal understandings, common practices, agreed decisionmaking procedures, and institutional arrangements. In other words, this paper analyses space as an extension of an international system where governance occurs on a piecemeal basis in the absence of a world government with supranational law-making and enforcement powers.