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Space Exploration and the Law: What You Need to Know

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Becoming an astronaut may have been on your childhood bucket list, but these days it may feel like the ‘space race’ is just a hobby for the world’s billionaires. Humanity has been obsessed with space exploration for centuries, and it’s a technology that’s continuing to grow and evolve — now, into the private sector. But does what happens in space stay in space? If billionaires and their friends go to infinity and beyond, are there no legal implications down here on Earth? Not necessarily, and that’s where the law is rapidly evolving to catch up. So maybe your childhood dream of being an astronaut was over before it began, but that doesn’t mean your law career won’t take you ‘out of this world.’ 

What is space exploration?

The space race actually started just after the Second World War, with Russia and the U.S. fighting to establish superiority in outer space. Russia made the first strides when, in 1957, Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to be placed into the Earth’s orbit, and then, in 1961, Vostok 1 carried the first human into outer space. 

After a relatively slow start, the U.S. ultimately made a bold comeback to land the first man on the moon in 1969. When Commander Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and spoke that classic line “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” those words marked a new era of humanity’s obsession with outer space.

Today, space exploration really includes everything to do with exploring outer space and using astronomy and space technology to achieve this. Whether you’re into extracting minerals from asteroids or discovering the next inhabitable planet, it’s genuinely a mega-industry of its own. 

How is space exploration evolving?

At the start of the space race, it was really all about the muscle power of certain governments and their investment in space exploration. Now, there is a growing appetite for private investment in space exploration. The three companies that are currently leading this race in the U.S. (depending on who you ask) are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. These companies are changing the game of space exploration, looking to develop technology to make space transport more accessible and push the boundaries of what we can achieve in space.  

Space exploration is constantly evolving and well funded. It is also high risk, relatively niche and riddled with legal complexities. Much of this complexity lies in the fact that there is currently no ‘law’ governing what happens in space. 

1. The Space Law ‘Framework’

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the forum for the development of international space law, was set up in 1959, by the United Nations General Assembly to “govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity: for peace, security and development”. The Outer Space Treaty (the first treaty signed by the Committee) states that there is no claim for sovereignty in space; in other words, no one nation can “own” space, the Moon or any other body. This treaty also states that national law governs the activities of a government or an organization in the country where that activity takes place, so many countries have now introduced their own national laws governing the exploration of space by private companies. 

These legal frameworks certainly make things clearer when it comes to developing spacecraft and exploration technology here on Earth, but they certainly don’t resolve all questions.

How you can make a difference: As more private (and often global) companies start to enter space traffic, these questions will become more and more complex, so does an emerging need for evolved expertise in the area of ‘space law.’ 

2. Civil and Criminal Liability

Who is responsible if a piece of space debris falls out of orbit and flattens your house? Or what happens when someone commits a crime in space? In 2019, it was alleged that NASA astronaut Anne McClain illegally accessed her estranged spouse’s bank account via the internet while onboard the International Space Station, or ISS, (she denies the accusation). She was in outer space, so in no man’s land right? Apparently not! In this case, as she was a U.S. citizen, committing a crime against a U.S. alleged victim, on the ISS, which is considered part of the U.S. — the U.S. has jurisdiction. If there was a spacecraft or astronauts from non-partner nations, then this jurisdiction issue gets a bit more tricky! 

How you can make a difference: Although not a huge issue now, this will only become more topical and important in the field of law as private companies start sending people up into the universe. 

3. Infrastructure and Projects

While it’s not always clear who governs liability in outer space, it’s somewhat clearer down here on Earth. The technology and infrastructure that goes into building spacecraft (think Sputnik, Apollo 11, Orion, and New Shepard, the rocket that took Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos into space in August 2021) is some of the most complex in the world. 

Did the designer fail to correctly measure the circumference of the space shuttle which then led to the outer sheeting to rip off mid-flight? Did the supply chain of insulation arrive 30 days late, meaning the launch of the aircraft was delayed by 30 days? As with all infrastructure, the relationships between companies developing and manufacturing spacecraft and related technology are governed by complex contracts designed to ensure the spacecraft is ready and safe for flight. The regulations and contracts governing these transactions are not only of high value but also extremely important in attributing liability if something goes wrong. 

How you can make a difference: The building and design of an aircraft are crucial to the safety and success of a voyage, and drafting the contracts and understanding the regulations is paramount to a rocketing success.

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