The legal minefield that is private space travel

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By Aiman Khan on

International space law is now more important than ever before

Image credit: Twitter @elonmusk

As Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has sent his Tesla to space, international space law has become more important than it ever was.

Ever since the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, in 1957, questions regarding the legal jurisdiction of space have surfaced. The Space Age started with competitive nations rushing for the moon, one after another. That was when the United Nations recognised the need for a guideline to maintain peace.

The very first UN body concerned with space was the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which was made permanent in 1959. This signaled that the international government and law-making process surrounding space law had begun.

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the ‘Outer Space Treaty’) was signed and enacted in 1967. To date it has 105 state parties and 89 signatory states. The Outer Space Treaty has laid a formal framework for nations regarding peaceful exploration of space. Some of its key principles include:

– Space is free for all nations to explore, and sovereign claims cannot be made.
– Space activities must be for the benefit of all nations and humans.
– Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are not allowed in Earth orbit, on celestial bodies or in other outer space locations.
– Individual nations are responsible for any damage their space objects cause. Individual nations are also responsible for all governmental and non-governmental activities conducted by their citizens. These states must also “avoid harmful contamination” due to space activities.

The 1967 treaty made it official that outer space is for everyone and anyone can explore it. This allows the private sector to step right in and explore its possibilities. As we step into an era where commercial spaceflight is becoming a reality, challenges are coming our way. Privatised space travel will raise many complicated legal issues.

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The Federal Aviation Administration of America is already in the process of establishing licensing and safety criteria for private spacecraft, a process that will continue to evolve as the industry matures. Space companies, legislatures and courts will need to address questions of liability in the event of accidents, the enforceability of liability waivers, insurance requirements, and the sufficiency of informed consent for passengers. Indeed, Florida, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia have already passed laws limiting the liability of space tourism providers under state tort law.

In 2015, the American Senate passed the bill ‘H.R. 2262’, also known as the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The bill is entitled: ‘An Act to facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and creating more stable and predictable regulatory conditions, and for other purposes.’ Under one provision of H.R. 2262, commercial companies get the rights to any resources that they collect from celestial bodies.

As new avenues of space expedition open up, it’s vital existing laws make room for them. But changes to legal framework shouldn’t just be the preserve of developed countries like the US. It is high time for the governments of other nations to invest or encourage private entities to explore space travel, too.

Aiman Khan is an apprentice advocate from Bangladesh who completed his law degree at the University of London.

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