So, what do you know about space law? If you do know something, then how would you like to be a space lawyer?

In all simplicity, space law means exactly what it says – laws for space. Think about it. There are an inordinate number of satellites that whiz around the Earth daily; and some even hourly. All of these belong to different countries. One could assume that since no country would have jurisdiction OUTSIDE THE PLANET, it would be safe for, well, any country to do anything.

Now that sounds illegal and it is. With the absence of space law, it would be possible for any country to spy on another and even launch attacks, theoretically speaking. It’s not something that has happened but the mere possibility is enough for many people to start building bunkers. Thus, a law of such kind would help regulate the movement of countries even in space, to put it extremely simply.

But how would it work? How does one simply decide jurisdiction in space? How would disputes be settled? For that matter, what could be the kind of grievances for which redressal could be sought? Are there crimes that haven’t even been considered? What institutes offer the facilities to gain knowledge about space law? What kind of a career could you have? Where did this even start? Who started it? So many questions exist and today, we try to get you some answers.

Instead of answering how space law began, let me answer the bigger question first. How do we even define outer space? Any philosopher or physicist worth their salt could tell you that the Earth is but a particle in the vast scheme of things. The Universe is so vast that to even imagine it is beyond what we could even hope to comprehend. So, suffice it to say that there’s no way to actually put the entire thing into perspective. However, outer space begins at around 100 km above sea level, a limit also known as the Karman line. Anything above this is considered to be outer space; and as for an upper limit on this particular definition, well normally, I would say the sky’s the limit, but…

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Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time for the lesson to begin, folks. Taken directly from the website, here it is.

Space law can be described as the body of law governing space-related activities. Space law, much like general international law, comprises a variety of international agreements, treaties, conventions, and United Nations General Assembly resolutions as well as rules and regulations of international organizations.

Yup. Self explanatory. Succinct. This is a good definition. Good enough for a 2 mark question. But let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a satellite known as the Sputnik I. There were many who were surprised by the apparent ‘win’ that the Soviet government had scored in the space race against the Americans. Indeed many agree that this was the reason the United States government was driven to completely change its space policy. Of course we all know how that went down when, in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. However, there is another, legal, aspect of the Sputnik that not a lot of people know about.

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At that time, countries did have their own airspace as they do today but nobody gave much thought to outer space. Sputnik changed that, however. The concept of airspace depends on extending the borders of a country vertically, something that could never be applied to outer space. To what extent would you extend that vertical line before your citizens finally put their foot down and called you crazy? It is for this reason that the concept of space law came into being. There had to some way to deal with issues that were surprisingly numerous. How would astronauts be rescued? How would data about potential dangers be shared among countries? And how could one deal with the liability of space satellites literally crashing into each other?

It all began with a treaty in 1958, by a committee created by the United Nations General Assembly and known popularly as Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space aka COPOUS. COPOUS was responsible for the first treaty regarding space law, a treaty that was popularly known as the Outer Space Treaty. The real name for the treaty is, of course, Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Whew.

The treated basically stated that:

  • Space is the domain of all countries and there would be no divisions.
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction were not to be allowed in orbit.
  • Individual nations would be responsible for any damages their space objects caused.

Henceforth, COPOUS and this treaty became the benchmark for space law as we know it today. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs had been created as a small unit to service the committee. However by 1968, it had become a department of its own and in 1993; its office was relocated to Vienna. In case you’re looking for more information, their website is a storehouse of it.

Since 1958, the committee has established a handful of treaties, such as the Rescue Agreement and the Liability Convention, that have helped to support peaceful space exploration. COPOUS has laid down five directive principles that provide support for the treaties. Also, the UN has held three UNISPACE conferences, the fourth of which is to be held in 2018. All of these have contributed heavily to the prominence that space law enjoys today. We live in a time where there are no limits to what humans have or could achieve. Thus it isn’t unfair to say that space law is quite relevant, especially when there are people actually buying property on the moon.

But when we speak of anything as complicated as law of any kind, the discussion invariably moves towards the academic. Yes, space law exists and yes it is required. But who wields these laws? Who are the lawyers and how do they learn about said law? What system of court exists for these lawyers to prosecute or defend? These questions, of course, can be answered using a quick Google search. The real question is if space law should be considered a career choice of any merit?

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As far as teaching space law is concerned, there is no dearth of colleges. This link provides a pretty comprehensive list on all the universities that offer programs. Most of these are special, additional courses that you can take along with your main law degree. However there are those that provide a full time degree in aerospace law. McGill University in Canada is a good example of this practice. One can also obtain similar degrees in France, India and Japan.

Yes, I have to admit that it won’t be a stretch to predict that space lawyers could get quite popular in a decade or two. But any new field must start somewhere. There has to be a point of conception, a zero level, if you will. If people are to study the law of outer space, then they would require opportunities to apply their knowledge, gain real life experience and move forward in their careers. There are always exceptions to this rule i.e. those who work for progress simply for progress’ sake. But there is no denying that a wealth of opportunity would incentivise space law for many, more so than the thrill of innovation or progress ever could. Sounds like a bleak world view but if you think about it, the statement isn’t without truth.

Beginning again where it literally began, space law has opportunities at NASA and United Nations. Both these organisations have been known to hire space lawyers and use their expertise to create or draft new laws. One example of that is the NASA policy for quarantining humans who met extra terrestrials. While this has never happened (or so they would have you believe), this particular law was repealed in 1991. All of these processes were undertaken by lawyers with expertise in space law. It stands to reason, then, working for NASA or the UN could provide much in the way of progress and career development. They aren’t the only organisations, of course. Committee on Space Research (COPSAR), France, for instance, is an organisation that deals solely with research and has experts from all forms of academia and private spheres.

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Private companies are not far behind, however. Over the past few years, space has become more accessible and less costly than one would believe. There are many venture capital firms, entrepreneurs and other sorts of companies that have displayed interest in travelling to space. The result of that has been twofold, coincidentally.

Firstly, a rise in interest in space has led to major innovations in the field of space technology. Any innovation of such kind, hence, would be a part of intellectual property, a term you may have heard a lot. Secondly, the intellectual property issues that could stem from thousands of companies sending their crafts to space can only be dealt with in one fashion – hiring lawyers. Space lawyers, if one is being precise. It is no surprise that a lot of space lawyers have backgrounds in science or engineering.

However, innovations such as these are still a couple of years away and these are optimistic estimates. A more negative outlook would range them from anywhere between five and ten years. It isn’t hard to guess the problems the industry would face at that time. Today, even non-space lawyers consist of many who are without jobs. According to Matt Leichter, author of Law School Tuition Bubble, a law blog, there are more than two law graduates for every job opening in the United States.

Imagine a scenario, then, of thousands of graduates with specialised degrees in space law without any jobs available. Yes, opportunities exist today and more so than they did before, but they would still not be enough. Not when compared to what they could be when private and state entities begin space exploration with all their resources and might. Seeing how the popularity of space law degrees has risen over the years, this is not a scenario that lies outside the realm of possibility, to say the least.

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While unemployment and something of a lawyer glut are challenges space law could face, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The development of this field still has a very long way to go, even in its core tenets. For starters, as mentioned before, the COPOUS has passed five treaties but none of those treaties are binding. There are 130 countries, out of 195, that have signed the Outer Space Treaty with 23 having signed but not ratified. In fact, the Moon Treaty of 1979, which was considered the follow up to the Outer Space treaty, failed to be ratified by any major space faring nation.

Most of the discussions regarding outer space laws, even today, somehow seem limited to government and state entities. There are literally no regulations by the COPOUS regarding space flight undertaken by private entities. Some countries have their own laws regarding such undertakings but it’s a no brainer that laws created and enforced by the UN could go a long way in unifying the processes involved in space travel and their consequences. The absence of such provisions has led to controversies of international proportions.

In 2015, for example, the US passed a resolution that allowed asteroid mining without any exploitation of the land on which the resource (asteroid) sat. This met with a lot of debate, as many experts continue to argue that this is in clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty. There remains, thus, a lack of clarity on how most of the provisions present in existing space would apply on private entities.

Another issue of contention is space debris. In 2013, China was famously condemned for deliberately destroying a satellite in Earth orbit. The destruction caused a cloud of space debris that also caused damage to a Russian satellite. The Outer Space Treaty does state that states are liable for damages their space objects cause, but many experts worry that in situations like the one in China, the legal ramifications are quite unclear. Of course, we haven’t even begun to speak of the elephant in the…err…planet? One of the biggest assumptions that the Outer Space Treaty makes is the presence of consistent international cooperation. In other words, all of the countries in the world will ignore their conflicts or politics when it comes to outer space, since in space we are but one planet and one people. Sounds totally possible, doesn’t it?

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When it comes to something as new as space law, anything is possible. Yes, it has been around for at least 50 years and there have been innumerable steps taken forward as far its progress is concerned. But it’s quite clear that there is still a long way to go. Potential lawyer glut, unemployment, provisions for private entities and space debris are just some of the problems it will have to overcome. None of this helped by the fact that space law has risen in popularity as far as young law degree seeking graduates are concerned and while this may bode well in the future, the present may well be rife for most of them. However, a concerted effort by governments, United Nations and companies can help greatly.

Let’s hope that this help comes sooner rather than later, because this planet has officially become too small for us. It’s only fair, after all, since what is the one thing most people need once they venture into something that is dark, unknown and dangerous?

Lawyers.

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