Space—The Next Legal Frontier

Posted on 10-08-2017 by
Tags: space treaty , outer space , space law

outer space

The Space Treaty is turning 50 years old. 


Have you heard about the Americans, Russians, Indians and Liberians sharing a habitation pod on Mars?

Science fiction?

For now.

But such a galactic, geo-political arrangement is on the horizon, and the legal quandaries it may produce could keep lawyers busy for light years.

This is the future of space—not the final frontier, and for adventurous attorneys, it is the next frontier in legal practice.

A Space-Age Treaty Is Aging

October 10th marks the 50th anniversary (1967) of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (aka the Outer Space Treaty). Now is a fitting time to look at the role the law will play in man’s expansion into the heavens.

The treaty, signed by more than 100 countries, says in short that:

  • Space exploration is for the benefit and interests of all countries.
  • Astronauts are the envoys of all mankind.
  • All states are free to explore and use outer space but may not appropriate it.
  • Weapons of mass destruction are banned; in fact, the celestial bodies are to be used only for peaceful purposes.

Now here’s where the treaty powers get tricky. Under the treaty, countries can authorize national space activities, whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities. It’s tricky because space is no longer the exclusive turf of large, powerful countries like the Soviet Union and United States. More than ever, tiny countries, often with the help of entrepreneurs, are probing the next frontier.

So space is now getting very crowded, with all the international governments and commercial entities—both individually and in coalitions. With so many entities zooming through space, it’ll prove impossible to consistently interpret the 50-year-old Space Treaty.

This means that space disputes aren’t an “if” but a “when”!

Moon Rocks: Throw Them At Your Neighbors

Naturally, lack of settled law will encourage international disputes, so opportunities for space lawyers will abound. Governments can’t be involved without regulation, which always breeds legal battles. For example, what happens when one government makes space rules in opposition to another’s?  

And it doesn’t end with governments vs. governments. Star wars (no pun intended) are foreseeable in other areas too. It might sound like science fiction, but legal disputes in space will include:  

So in celebrating the history of the Space Treaty, we also look forward legally; the future of space is also the future of law. In her article Mars Needs Lawyers, Maggie Koerth-Baker equates international space laws with those governing Earth’s seas. Those laws have been evolving for centuries, and presumably, so too will the laws governing space.

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