While many people may think that it sounds like something out of a movie, Space Law is a very real field and it is growing. Space Law is murky territory in that it’s constantly evolving with recent advancements and the boom space exploration has been experiencing amongst the public. It draws on international law aspects, contracts, and some cyber security law. Each part comes together to help individual and government organizations navigate the expansive front that is space.
Space, for these purposes, can be looked at in terms of air space. Legally, air space is divided based on its uses. In general, the country that air space is located over controls the airspace above it. This includes what kind of aircrafts can fly where and when. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), roughly 62 miles above the median sea level is a line known as the Kármán Line and that line marks the transition from Earth’s atmosphere to what is commonly referred to as “space.”
Space and its celestial bodies cannot legally be owned or colonized by any nation due to globally co-signed treaties. One of the most recognizable treaties is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is governed by the UN office for Outer Space Affairs. The treaty was signed into being in October of 1967.
The UN has enacted additional treaties that cover topics such as: The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, and other topics that help to keep outer space clean and peaceful for everyone involved, whether they be private or governmental.
International law plays a large role in Space Law because the concept of space exploration has adopted an understanding of one people. Many of the treaties focus on teamwork in the context that when it comes to space, we are all from the same planet. However, we also understand that while we are the same species, we are not all from the same place regionally or culturally. Therefore, international law is a key factor in coming to these agreements. Being able to navigate Space Law between countries is one thing, but the conversation is further broken down when we look at private sector interest in space.
Space travel has been commercialized in the States and a few other select countries. Companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and others are legally allowed to get in on the space exploration game. Private companies are involved in different aspects of commercializing space, but what people don’t realize is that they have been for quite some time. However, the material aspects of commercializing space are just becoming a reality. For example, SpaceX (created in 2002), owned by South African Billionaire Elon Musk, was founded with the intention of making space travel more acceptable and colonizing Mars.
Another company, Blue Origin (created in 2000), owned by Amazon Tycoon, is aiming to make space a tourist industry. And other companies, such as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, focus on transporting cargo in space and airspace. Of course, we cannot forget the original government agencies. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is the American agency overseeing government space exploration.
Most countries involved in space exploration have a similar administrative agency such as China’s CNSA or Australia’s ASA or Mexico’s AEM, and so on. These government organizations are the ones that would be able to sign the UN’s space treaties. Once a country is signed on via their federal space administration, all public and private space exploration companies in that country are bound by that treaty.
As you can see, Space Law has many layers involved and it is an ever-growing and evolving legal field, but that’s what makes it so interesting. As the late great astronaut and teacher, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, once said: “Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.”