Outer Space

Lawyers in Space: The New Wild West

space law

Treat the aliens as you would like the aliens to treat you.

In light of how many science fiction stories have depicted humans exploring outer space, it seems inevitable that some of them will come true eventually. Although space remains the only uncorrupted frontier, the high costs, stakes and potentials involved mean the mission will not be as simple as jumping on a horse and heading West. Agreements and restrictions need to be decided upon before humans venture off this planet, and an emerging field has been developing to do just this. Space Law.

Landscape Desert Milky Way Stars Night Sky Cactus

The concept of space law originated in the 1940s when lawyer Andrew Haley began working with Aerojet rocket company in Southern California. Rocket scientist Theodore von Karman told Haley,

“You will have to see that we behave well in outer space…After all, we are the scientists but you are the lawyer, and you must tell us how to behave ourselves according to law and to safeguard our innocence.”

Twenty years later, Andrew Haley published his comprehensive book, Space Law and Government.

The Space Race of 1957 initiated discussions between various nations regarding peace in space. The UN created COPUOS, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which then subdivided into scientific and technical groups. COPUOS has negotiated five treaties since its inception, around topics such as astronaut rescue, space object damage liability and nuclear testing in outer space. Some of these treaties have been more widely accepted than others, but none of them have changed since the 1970s. The general consensus between nations has been to preserve peaceful, equal, safe and non-exploitive exploration and research in outer space.

The nations involved in the International Space Station created an agreement in 1998 which encompasses intellectual property laws and cooperation guidelines for those participatants. Many countries have their own individual space laws as well.



More recently, talks have begun about commercial enterprise in space. Mining, tourism and other endeavors will need regulations in order to expand in coming years. Developing nations have expressed concern that first world nations will dominate the space industry as they have already begun to. The UN may decide to extend the Law of the Sea into space for this reason.

As it stands, no nation can own land on the Moon or another planet. Vague writing about individual ownership in the property treaty inspired one man to write to the UN in 1980 claiming his ownership of the Moon. He asked them for any reason he couldn’t legally own it, and the UN never wrote back. Dennis Hope, the President of the Galactic Government, has been selling plots of land on the Moon ever since, over 600 million acres in total. He has also claimed ownership of Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter’s moon Io, and Pluto. While most agree that Hope’s claim to the Moon has no gravity, he attempted to enforce it when China announced their plans to build a permanent Moon base. Once he even received an energy bill in the mail from the elusive Owner of the Sun! We’ll see if Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Jimmy Carter and all the other so-called Moon owners line up to claim their acreage when space travel becomes commonplace. Talk about a Space Western movie plot.

 Anthropologist Beth O’Leary has made an effort to preserve historical sites on the Moon for archaeological research and cultural heritage. Currently there isn’t much threat to previously explored Moon sites, but soon there may be. O’Leary established the Lunar Legacy Project to document existing artifacts on the Moon, but her efforts currently only offer symbolic protection. It would be a shame if some roving space cowboy drove right through the first footsteps on the Moon.

As space travel becomes more accessible, space lawyers will have a lot to figure out. From moon tourism travel insurance to war in space, essentially anything we have rules about on Earth we could have rules about in outer space.

In case it crossed your mind, Alien Law does exist. Meta Law decides how humans should treat extraterrestrials, in case you happen to come across one. For now, meta law remains pretty vague, but it instates that a general Golden Rule should be followed.



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