Scitech | Red tape in outer space

The foundations, and future, of international space law

Ever wondered what the legal ramifications for attempting to colonize the moon would be? There is more to it than throwing a couple billion dollars into the project, picking out the lucky astronauts, and counting down to lift off.  In fact, there are a lot of laws and regulations in space.

The term “outer space law” brings to mind the X-Files and UFOs, or maybe legal treaties between satellite carriers and distributors.  However, the practice of space law is an established legal field.  The United Nations has an Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and McGill has had an Institute for Air and Space Law for over fifty years. McGill is also home to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association, and the Canadian Space Agency, making McGill one of the leading institutions for the study of space law.

The Institute for Air and Space Law at McGill was started in 1951 and originally focused just on air law – but the launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s revolutionized the institute. Since then, the program has grown immensely: the institute has over 900 graduates.

The space law program at McGill is a graduate program, dominated by three courses taught by professor Ram Jakhu.  “[We] offer the most comprehensive program in the world,” said Paul Dempsey, the institute’s director, who added that the program’s graduates who now live in 120 different countries.

Although the field of space law came into existence relatively late in the game – the UN established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in the 1950s – it is continually developing.  The University of Sunderland, in the U.K., introduced a space law module into their standard undergraduate law degree earlier this year to keep up with the changing legal field.

“An increasing number of national and international law firms were introducing Space Law as an area of practice,” explained professor Christopher Newman, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Sunderland and one of the professors teaching the new Space Law module, in an email to The Daily. 
“The Space Law module only has a small number of students, around twenty,” explained Newman, “[but] anecdotal feedback from the students is extremely positive.”  The module covers everything from an introduction to the history of space travel and why regulation in outer space is necessary, to environmental issues and extraterrestrial property rights. 
“I think the thing that has excited [the students] the most in this area is that, because there isn’t a great deal of judicial or legislative activity (certainly in the U.K.), they can project their own legal solutions and indeed impose their own structure,” Newman wrote.

The first outer space treaty – the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies – was negotiated in 1967.  Four more treaties followed in the late 1960s and through to the early 1980s, which provide the backbone for international space law. 
The legal principles in these five treaties support the non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, the freedom of exploration, the safety of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of damage to the environment, and the settlement of disputes.  As stated on the UNOOSA website, “Each of the treaties lays great stress on the notion that the domain of outer space…should be devoted to enhancing the well-being of all countries and humankind.”

So what is in the cards for the future of space law? 
 “[The field of Space Law] is set to enjoy very significant growth,” Dempsey said. “Richard Branson intends to provide regular commercial suborbital flights [and] Boeing also wants to have a re-usable vehicle [for commercial space travel].”  
“If the first generation of space travellers were (by and large) military test pilots and the second generation were scientists then the third generation of space travellers – starting with Dennis Tito – are going to be tourists, travelling to space as a leisure activity,” wrote Newman. 
As commercial enterprises become more developed in the field of space travel, ideas of hotels in space and quick day trips around the Earth, previously associated more with cartoons like The Jetsons than with reality, are no longer only in the realm of the imagination.

“There are proposals to put some sort of hotel in space so tourists would have some place to spend a few days,” added Dempsey.  He also suggested that commercial space travel could be used for point-to-point transportation on earth.  “One could travel from New York to Tokyo in only a few hours.”

The introduction of tourists to space travel will significantly complicate the legal matters of space.  “Regulation of [tourist travel] is going to be far more complicated, but far more necessary than previous legal frameworks,” Newman explained.  “I think the next twenty years will see space law coming into the legal mainstream.”


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