Space Lawyers: They Exist

A James Cameron and Google-backed asteroid mining company has a bevy of them on retainer to help divvy up all that unobtanium. Plus they help craft liability laws for space tourists and consult with governments on extraterrestrial visits.

Ambulance chasing only gets you so far. Hitching a ride, metaphorically speaking, on rockets funded by private corporations seeking fortunes beyond Earth's atmosphere is where it's at for eager legal pioneers.

There are stellar opportunities for lawyers specializing in space exploration. Space law is quickly becoming an integral part of the evolving aerospace industry. These lawyers exist in a tightly knit industry that deals with all kinds of practical issues and some that seem cribbed from science fiction. Depending on whether the space lawyer is in private practice or academia, he or she could handle anything from liability laws pertaining to litigious space tourists to the legal framework surrounding human encounters with E.T.

"Space tourists are usually high-income earners whose survivors can use high-powered lawyers—insurability for private space travel flights is a big issue at this time," says space lawyer Doug Griffith, a former Marine Helicopter pilot now working within the commercial space industry. Like him, lots of space lawyers are veterans. And nearly all of them are space and science geeks who found a way to combine their passion for outer space with legal practice.

Space lawyers even have their own legal journal and university programs. The marvelously titled Journal of Space Law is published by the University of Mississippi Law School's National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law. Articles in the current issue deal with, among other things, death liability in commercial space flight accidents, international law relating to suborbital flights, and mineral rights for lunar mining. Students interested in space law also have the option of studying in the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; other law schools also offer space law courses within larger programs.

Surprisingly, it's not the legal profession's equivalent of a degree in fine arts. Far from it. Short of bumping into Alf, the final frontier for space law is extraterrestrial mining. Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture backed by filmmaker James Cameron and Googlers Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, is entering a legal gray area. "Outer space mining, in legal terms, is the Wild West," Griffith tells Fast Company. Lawyer Michael Listner wrote an article on the topic that notes no one has truly figured out sovereignty laws for outer space and private, non-governmental exploration—the United States or China cannot claim sovereignty over an asteroid, but private corporations might. Planetary Resources, for their part, claims that asteroids do not count as "celestial bodies" regulated by the 1967 treaty because meteorites, which are asteroids that fell to earth, are not covered under it. If Planetary Resources really does succeed in starting up extraterrestrial mining operations, the value of the minerals it finds might pale in comparison to space lawyers' billable hours.

Satellite issues, however, are the bread and butter of space law. Satellites handle television transmissions, GPS signals, and a host of other projects for commercial, military and government clients alike. Several binding international treaties such as the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused By Space Objects, and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty address liability and risk concerns over satellites—red meat for these interstellar legal eagles. (Specifics regarding fault for either non-functioning satellites or people or property on the ground hurt by falling satellites depends on the locality.)

Even NASA and the United Nations have put space lawyers on retainer, asking them more recently to update old legal guidelines or create new ones for the occasion that humanity reaches other planets. The NASA policy for quarantining humans who met extraterrestrials while visiting these other planets was created by Apollo-era space lawyers. It was repealed in 1991. The extraterrestrial regulations were part of a larger law primarily aimed at quarantining astronauts who, in those Cuban Missile Crisis days, were feared might bring pathogens home from the Moon. (Sorry, conspiracy theorists!). The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) is an international organization based in France dedicated to space research with experts drawn from academia and the private sphere worldwide. Although the bulk of COSPAR's work these days deals with GPS issues and satellite law, the organization published a planetary protection policy several years ago that issued non-binding guidelines for astronauts visiting other planets.

Other space law experts have since written papers on topics like international law and permanent lunar bases. Eventually, many more regulations written in the age of Apollo and Soyuz will need to be updated for the era of the International Space Station and SpaceX.

The sky's no longer the limit for ambitious lawyers.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Find Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, on Twitter and Google+.

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1 Comments

  • johnwerneken

    One thing we know when lawyers show up: we have such things as government, citizens, courts, laws, property, etc. We need those societal tools in space or not much development of space can occur.