International Space Laws were developed in the 1960’s as a way to govern human activities in space. Although air laws had been in place since as early as 1919, prior to the launch of Sputnik 1, Russia’s first satellite, little thought was given to who governed outer space. Conventional thinking was that a nation’s sovereignty extended from the ground upward. However, if this held true during a satellite flight, which crossed the airspace of many countries without permission, the country with the satellite would be in direct violation of air laws. President Eisenhower accepted the Soviet Union’s right to operate Sputnik 1 over US air space as he looked to the future with the desire to launch US satellites that would fly over Soviet air space. It was quickly understood that the laws that would govern spacecraft flights would be different from the laws that governed our air space, thus birthing the need for Space Law came.
Since that time, the majority of operations in outer space have been conducted by government agencies. Today, the idea of private and commercial spaceflight has become a reality and states are making new laws to prepare for such spaceflights. As we get ready to enter a new era with regard to outer space, there are many things to consider when it comes to space laws. Companies are being born to sell real estate in outer space and other companies are building spacecraft to send us into orbit. The International Space Station adds another very complicated layer to space law concerns due to its’ unique, international cooperative nature. Though current space laws have been effective in maintaining peace in outer space, there is much to think about for the future. With many different scenarios becoming a possibility, it is easy to see how certain laws could be misunderstood. Here are some common myths associated with today’s space laws and what they really mean to us.
Myth #1: Extraterrestrial property sales is an actual thing, but no, you cannot buy a summer house on the Moon. There are companies that will “sell” you land on the moon, Mars or other planets and natural satellites. However, ownership of extraterrestrial real estate is not recognized by any governing authority. Though some private companies have claimed ownership of the celestial bodies and are actively selling part of them through “lunar deeds”, “Martian deeds” or similar certificates, these deeds have no legal standing. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 established the moon and other celestial bodies as a “province for all mankind” and explicitly forbid nations from claiming ownership. The Outer Space Treaty explains extraterrestrial real estate as the “exploitation of the moon and other celestial bodies for profit” rather than actual ownership.
Myth #2: The Moon Agreement was developed in 1979 to expand the detail of the Outer Space Treaty in regards to property rights and the usage of the moon and other celestial bodies. The Moon Treaty is in fact, one of four additional treaties that were put into place in the 1960’s and 1970’s to support the Outer Space Treaty and peaceful space exploration. However, since the Moon Treaty has only been signed by 15 countries, and none of them are major players in space exploration, this treaty is widely regarded by many as a failed treaty.
Myth #3: US citizens can launch unmanned spacecraft or rockets as recreation. No, we cannot launch a rocket into space from our backyard. At least, not yet. Regulated by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, rockets with no crew that are headed for space or high altitude must receive special permission from the FAA. As space tourism becomes more and more likely, the FAA is actively developing guidelines to protect passengers that want to take a trip into space.
Myth #4: Each astronaut or cosmonaut on the International Space Station is governed by their home country and any crime committed in space is handled by that nation. Well, sometimes. The International Space Station is the largest international project and as such, has its own international treaty (along with many provisions) that govern the goings on of the members aboard. In most cases, the nations from which the members hale do handle situations that arise from proprietary rights to criminal charges. However, there are times when jurisdictions may cross, making the legal landscape a bit tricky.
Myth #5: In 1976, eight States challenged the Outer Space Treaty, asserting that their rights to control their natural resources had been breached by the treaty, and won. While it is true that these States, Colombia, Ecuador, Congo, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zaire, did indeed challenge the treaty by seeking to extend ownership of space over their respective countries through the Bogota Declaration, their attempts went largely ignored and the current Outer Space Treaty remained in place.
Myth #6: Private companies may now make claims to space and celestial bodies. The US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act does not allow for territorial claims. However, as we progress and some nations look toward landing on Mars and other bodies, it is unclear how property rights might change. Some have suggested that Antarctica would be a good model to use, as they are owned by no nation and are used mainly for scientific purposes although whether that will happen remains to be seen.
As you can see, the changing landscape of space exploration is happening at a rapid pace and there is much ambiguity as to how the current laws will continue to apply and the need for development of new laws in this rather unchartered territory. One thing is certain, man’s foray into space is going to continue, and in bigger and more exciting ways, and the lawmakers and officials in the rapidly expanding space community are at the forefront of these exciting times.