What is Space Law?

Does the United States own the moon? Have you ever wondered if there are laws about space? Space law is the body of laws, agreements and treaties that govern outer space. Worldwide leaders must grapple with how to regulate activity in space. Space law covers issues like rules for exploration, weapons use, damage for liability, rescue efforts for astronauts in distress, environmental regulations and records of space activity.

What do space lawyers do?

Space lawyers draft international treaties and national laws. They advise lawmakers about good policy and whether to enter international agreements. Space lawyers may even help negotiate these agreements. They help government entities and even private companies engaging in space exploration comply with existing laws and treaties.

Because of the nature of space law, space lawyers engage in a great deal of policy making. They might spend the bulk of their time drafting proposals or advocating for certain policies. Space lawyers must also understand enough science to give their clients educated advice.

Studying space law

Space law is a relatively new area for formal legal study. The first formal legal certificate program for space law studies began in 2008. A few universities offer degrees and other opportunities for formal study. The University of Nebraska offers an LLM and a J.S.D. degree in space, cyber and telecommunications law. The University of Michigan sponsors a Society for Space Law. Students wishing to pursue space law might pursue one of these programs or they might choose related coursework as part of their own, customized legal study within a more generalized law degree program.

Major areas of space law

The history of space law

In 1942, attorney Andrew G. Haley helped begin the Aerojet company. The company’s founders joked that it was up to Haley to help them behave in outer space. Haley went on to write the treatise Space Law and Government.

As the space race grew in the 1950s, scientists and governments began to talk about the need for responsible behavior in space exploration. The United States and the USSR were part of these discussions. The United Nations also debated the issues in 1958. In 1959, the United Nations formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). COPUOS is the main international group for discussing space activity and its related agreements.

COPUOS and International Treaties

The COPUOS committee created five different treaties between 1967 and 1979. The first was the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The treaties cover topics like the rescue of astronauts, liability issues when space activities cause damage and registration of objects that public bodies and private entities launch into outer space. The agreements discuss appropriating resources. Generally, the treaties have supported the notion that no state should claim sovereignty of any celestial body including the moon. One treaty banned the use of nuclear weapons in space.

Challenges with international treaties

Despite the number of COPUOS agreements and other international peacekeeping efforts, many nations are hesitant to sign international agreements that they feel limit their power and control in space exploration. In fact, there are only 17 signatories to the 1979 Moon Treaty. To date, most nations have been hesitant to sign agreements that give up territorial sovereignty in space. In fact, India is the only country that has both signed the Moon Treaty and affirmed their intent to go to the moon. Even so, domestic laws in India make it questionable that India’s signature to the treaty is even official.

Other treaties have been more successful. For example, the 1967 treaty has 104 signatories. Some say that international treaties are more successful when they contain vague language that’s open to interpretation. However, the vague language of the international agreements concerns some who say that the agreements contain very little in terms of significant, binding, controlling language.

International conflicts

Apportioning limited space in space is already an area of international friction. There are only a fixed number of spots available for satellites that are in geostationary orbit. Many countries on the equator believe that they have the right to control the space above their countries. As more countries want to launch geostationary satellites, conflicts will likely continue. Space lawyers must figure out how to resolve these conflicts as they grapple with the ethical questions that govern who should have top priority.

NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) oversees federal and civilian space activity based in the United States. They use government funding to explore deep space and conduct other research. NASA hopes to send humans to Mars. NASA is also the organization that coordinates activities on the International Space Station. Finally, NASA cooperates with the U.S. military in order to further military reconnaissance, information gathering and missile defense.

The International Space Station

A 1998 international agreement created the International Space Station. It’s a coordinated effort between a number of nations. Each nation maintains jurisdiction and authority over their own module. NASA coordinates activities on the International Space Station for all participating nations.

Space policy in the United States

Domestic space policy is largely in the hands of the United States President. The President negotiates treaties. The President sets policy for domestic space activities pending legislative approval and funding. Space lawyers guide the President with policy recommendations and guidance. Domestic space organizations such as the Space Science Institute and the National Space Society lobby the President and Congress for policies that they believe are in the public interest and favorable for their organizations.

Private space activities

The U.S. government supervises public space exploration and private space activity. For example, energy drink company Red Bull undertook a space diving exploration project called Red Bull Stratos when they sponsored a team of engineers to lead an Austrian skydiver to jump from 24 miles in the atmosphere to free fall to earth in a special suit and with a parachute. The project was not only the first time an individual broke the sound barrier without using an engine, but it was also the highest manned balloon flight and the highest altitude flight of all time.

Space lawyers not only work with government agencies for how to regulate these kinds of activities, but they also work with the private agencies that undertake them in order to ensure their compliance with existing regulations. In that regard, space law and aviation law may intersect. The Red Bull Stratos project went 24 miles into space. While most scientists agree that outer space begins at approximately 62 miles into space, NASA officials and other space regulators and enthusiasts still watched the Red Bull Stratos project with great interest.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015

Before the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, U.S. space law was a patchwork collection of small statutes. These laws dotted other chapters of federal law including communication and transportation chapters. In 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. This Act didn’t do a great deal to create new laws. Rather, the Act moved national laws regarding space into one consolidated chapter.

Why become a Space Lawyer?

Space law is part international politics, part lobbying and part science. For attorneys who enjoy science, space law is a great fit. It’s also a great fit for attorneys who enjoy politics, negotiation and international relations.

If you’re passionate about space, practicing space law gives you the chance to be a part of the future. As technologies and government priorities change, the laws and agreements that govern activity in space must also change. Space lawyers get to be a part of this important work. They have the opportunity and the obligation to be leaders in making international agreements and policies in this emerging field.

Becoming a Space Lawyer – Making a career out of the final frontier

Because many countries in the world have an interest in space exploration, and because space is the final frontier, space law is part science and part politics. Space lawyers spend a lot of their time determining what international agreements should be and how private property and territory rights should work in regards to outer space. Once they answer these questions, they must work to gain international cooperation and agreement on these issues. Finally, space lawyers must work to implement international and domestic laws that relate to space activity and exploration.