Space travel, the new legal frontier

Kanisa George  -
Kanisa George -


Human beings, our norms, habits and even our questionable quirks shape everything around us. As we change, institutions and widely accepted perspectives change. So too does the law. Legal principles move with the ebb and flow of life, and laws are constantly developing. But in some cases, laws are far behind human development.

As we move towards a future dominated by technology and space travel, we hold our breath to see how the law would respond and whether it would catch up to speed. Movies like Interstellar and Passengers have made us think about the possibility of seeing the earth from out of space, and now companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are making those dreams a reality. As a result, space travel has moved far beyond some outlandish sci-fi fantasy and has planted itself amid our modern world.

Generation X can now add space travel to their bucket list as companies are racing to make commercial space flight a key feature of space tourism. But how is this going to be regulated? According to the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, space law comprises a variety of international agreements, treaties, conventions, and UN resolutions. These include the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Return and Rescue Agreement.

The UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 outlines the basic framework for a number of principles that govern space exploration, military and weapons use, and liability for damages. At the top of the list is the exploration and use of outer space. The treaty states that exploration and use should be carried out for the benefit and interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind. As such, outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, use or occupation, or other means. In fact, not even the US has rights to lunar land after planting a flag on the moon.

One interesting part of space exploration is the International Space Station (ISS). Governed by the Inter-governmental Agreement on Space Station Co-operation, the ISS is a modular space station that’s part of a multinational collaborative project involving Russia, Japan, Europe, Canada and the US. Although subject to international law, questions of law arise when conventions are breached or crimes are committed aboard the ISS.

In 2019, a NASA astronaut was accused of identity theft, which many deemed to be the first crime ever committed in space. How then does the law apply? And how are jurisdictional issues settled? Under the ISS agreement, when a crime is committed on the ISS, the country who's national was involved has criminal jurisdiction, unless people from other countries were affected. One writer considered a somewhat complex legal situation where a civilian staying in a space hotel stole from another guest, whose laws would then apply? In a time where space tourism is within our reach, how would these legal issues be settled?

Space tourism is such a novel concept that experts worry that the current legal framework doesn’t provide clear rules on its operations. One area of concern is the distinction between orbital and suborbital activities and which category space tourism and private space flight fall into. One researcher believes that it is difficult to determine which laws and regulations already in existence apply to suborbital private space flight and space tourism, and as such, a tailor-made legal regime is needed.

Another area of concern is whether space tourism/ travel fall under the purview of space law or air law. Would licensing operators be space companies, airports, or airlines? Where vehicle certification is concerned, would it be certified as a spacecraft or aircraft?

Michelle Hanlon, associate director of the University of Mississippi School of Law’s air and space law programme, raised another alarming concept – human rights in space. Because the population of humans in space has the potential to grow exponentially, human rights must be considered. Yet, as it stands, there are no human rights that ensure humans have the right to oxygen or even the right to an open line of communication back to earth, which in her opinion raises significant ethical concerns.

Whether or not you’ll be first in line to see the world from above, commercial space travel and space tourism is the next big thing. Yet laws that effectively manage space travel is a long way off and far more complex than we could ever imagine. Only with time would we see how well the law would adapt to this new frontier and the world of space travel.


"Space travel, the new legal frontier"

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