The International Space Station, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. All of these are exciting achievements and plans driving visions of the new space economy. But as extraterrestrial travel and exploration advance, one thing is inevitable: civil and criminal offenses in Earth’s orbit. That means… space lawyers! Though it may seem far-fetched, conflicts and disagreements are bound to happen, and in fact, already have. Therefore, it should be of little surprise that a need for space lawyers is evolving as well.
Recent news reports of a domestic dispute case originating from the International Space Station have gained national attention. Astronaut Anne McClain was accused by her former partner of improperly accessing a bank account not belonging to her. The key issue was that McClain was said to do so while in the International Space Station. While both NASA and the Federal Trade Commission are investigating the case, clearly space law cases pose challenges. Thus, exploring the future role of space lawyers and legal structures is actually quite timely.
The History of Space Law Cases
When it comes to space law cases, a precedent actually exists that serves as a foundational guide. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) was created decades ago when space explorations first began. A remarkable document that came from UNOOSA’s efforts was that of the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty governs all space activities involving both exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other planets. And the treaty identified all of outer space as a heritage for humanity and communal in nature.
Overall, a major issue that interests space lawyers involves the jurisdiction of possible conflicts and disputes. In essence, nations have jurisdiction over their own personnel and specific vessels. In other words, space law cases involving a nation’s spacecraft, space object, or personnel are subject to their own laws. And issues involving the International Space Station, which houses 5 nations, had its own means of resolving space law cases. To date, space lawyers have primarily become knowledgeable about these aspects of extraterrestrial law.
A New Era of Space Law Cases Emerging
The recent report of allegations against Anne McClain usher in a new era of space law cases. Prior cases have involved one nation’s spacecraft being damaged by another nation’s space debris. But McClain’s case involves individual behaviors that have not yet been addressed by legal precedent. While McClain’s situation will undoubtedly fall under U.S. law, similar space law cases in the future may not be as clear. And this time is when space lawyers will be increasingly needed to help identify issues and the need for legal structures.
One of the key issues that may pose a challenge in space law cases involves the discovery of evidence. NASA and other agencies may be less than willing to release information on the grounds of national security. This detail could notably hinder the due process and the ability of space lawyers to address key issues. Likewise, current legal standards do not address how space law cases outside of spacecraft should be handled. This may be a challenge for space lawyers as international space tourism evolves.
Another potential problem moving forward concerning space law cases also involves extraterrestrial habitats. As people spend increasing amounts of time in lunar or other planetary modules, more traditional human conflicts will occur. These types of cases are not clearly governed by existing law. Thus, space lawyers will be needed to sort out these issues and drive new considerations. In some cases, those charged with crimes may be transported back to Earth. But this may not be feasible in more remote space locations like Mars. In these circumstances, not only will the need for space lawyers increase, but so will the need for space judges.
Too Soon to Think About the Need for Space Lawyers?
Space law cases like those involving Anne McClain may seem minor and fail to raise a concern about the future. But given the recent advances among commercial entities involved in space exploration, such issues are quite relevant. Key areas where space lawyers will likely be needed will include environmental issues and those involving space debris. And with a future rise in space tourism, space lawyers will likely be called upon for new issues as well. Thus, it clearly seems that a discussion about space lawyers should occur sooner rather than later.
The primary challenges regarding future space law cases pertain to how past treaties will govern new developments. These treaties were designed to address space law cases involving governments and nations. However, with multinational companies potentially pursuing commercial interests, such treaties may not be adequate. Space lawyers will be increasingly recruited in these situations along with new legislation. And with the speed with which these developments are occurring, taking a proactive approach might be well supported.