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Space Law: Charting The Course For Governance Beyond Earth's Borders

This article primarily aims to delve into the future possibilities and current structure of space laws in the world, including India. It also helps as an introductory compendium to law students, into the field of space law. It discusses mainly about the history, scope, challenges and future possibilities in the field of space law.

As one of the least discussed realm of law, this article tries to guide the readers through the world beyond earth and how our earthly laws and regulations are now applied, how it should be applied and how it could be applied in the future. In conclusion, this article hopes to not only provide information on the laws of space but also hopes to illuminate the minds of the readers about the vast possibilities of law other than the ones we see today.

An Introduction to Space Law

"Now Andy, we will make the rockets, you must make the corporation and money. Later on, 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 the law and safeguard our innocence."

These were the words spoken by Theodore von Karman, founder of one of the first rocket launching company 'Aerojet', to Andrew G Haley, one of the co-founders and the main lawyer of the company.[i] These words clearly showcases the importance of legal framework in the field of space exploration because often "space" and "law" are not usually considered interrelated. Especially in this era where many countries including India are actively participating in space exploration, the need for a uniform legal framework and its enforcement is very important.

But, developments in space laws have been going through a very slow pace throughout these years. Most important and fundamental sets of laws in the international space law are still governed through Outer space treaty established way back in 1967.[ii]

The importance of the field of space law has only increased over time with the recent progress in space exploration all over the world. Many countries are investing in their own space programs more, and new countries like China and India are emerging as the major players in space exploration which was once dominated by US and Russia.

There is no doubt that exploring outer space holds profound importance in the future of humanity as it promises to unlock unprecedented scientific discoveries, technological progress and valuable knowledge for us. Therefore it is also evident that the realm of space law is going to be an important aspect concerning space exploration in the future, even more than it is today.

Now, let us turn our attention to the historical developments and milestones of space law over the years which will provide us with a comprehensive trajectory of the evolution of space law both domestically and internationally.

History of space law

Knowing the past always helps to make plans for the future and knowing the evolution of space laws through the decades will help us study and predict the trajectory the space laws is going.

The beginning of space law would be when countries started to recognize their own airspace as their own territory way back in 1919, which was reinforced at the Chicago convention in 1944.[iii]

But, the major boost to space programs and thereby to space laws came after the beginning of the cold war between Russia (Soviet Union) and USA from 1947. This led to many space related activities from both sides and led to the beginning of National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA in 1958. But before that, soviet launched "Sputnik" in 1957, which was mankind's first successful launch of a satellite to space. As the cold war competition raged on between both sides, UN created a committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COUPUOS).

After this the world started to recognize the importance of space regulation which led to a series of discussions led by UN, involving many countries and great legal minds including Andrew G Haley. These all led to the formation of one of the most important and fundamental space treaties till now, the Outer space treaty of 1967. This treaty laid the foundation for the regulation of space activities at the international level and made space exploration and studies, accessible to every country. This treaty is also considered as a symbol marking the end of the space war, with US emerging as the victor.

Following the Outer space treaty, many more treaties came:
Even though they were not as internationally accepted as the outer space treaty they still held relevance in various areas. The major ones are, Rescue agreement [iv] of 1968 regarding the return of astronauts and objects launched into the space, Liability Convention [v] of 1972 regarding damages caused due to the space exploration, Registration convention [vi] of 1976 regarding the proper registration of objects launched to space and Moon treaty [vii] of 1984 regarding the proper governance of the activities in the moon. (There were also other treaties like Partial test ban treaty, Telecommunication treaties etc.) These treaties, including the Outer space treaty together is considered as the five major treaties in Space Law.

The next most important milestone in the space law happened in 1998 when the international space station agreement came into being, this was widely accepted by many countries and laid the foundational framework for the International Space station (ISS).

History of Space law in India

As for India, Vikram Sarabhai led to the formation of India's first national space agency INCOSPAR (Indian national committee for space research) in 1962, which later became ISRO (Indian space research organization) in 1969. The country has signed all the five major treaties and is currently one of the leading countries in space exploration. ISRO till now has launched more than 125 missions to space including the major ones like Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan series, Gaganyaan and many more.

As India is emerging as a major player in space, it is clear that the country needs a proper legal framework for its space activities and needs an efficient system to implement it.

In this field of law there are many aspects in it which has major applications for space exploration and will be a field of major importance and scope in the coming future for lawyers.

Various aspects of Space Law

Space exploration and its related fields including space law is very important in the field of international politics, law making, and in many social and economic factors. Below are some of the major aspects of space law which represents its importance and also the future scope in this field through these aspects.

Government administration for Space
Space shuttle program by NASA in 1986[viii] was a big space project aimed at improving space exploration activity for the US. But the program was disbanded after the accident after its liftoff, which lead to deaths and huge loss to the government. This aftermath of this incident caused huge strain to the entire nation's budget and greatly affected the public sentiments to the government thereby having a great impact on the countries administration. This can be taken as an example to highlight how connected the space activities and its results whether good or bad, are to the countries government.

As seen from the space race that emerged from the cold war between Russia and US, it is clear that space exploration is a factor that could affect international relations between the countries. This also leads to various laws that needs to be passed which favors the countries space sectors advancement. One example for this was when US passed National defense Education Act[ix] in 1958 to enhance education in science and engineering to meet the demands of the space program.

In this era where many more countries are investing in the space sector, it is very important that the lawyers of the country make sure the laws stands in favor of space exploration and to make sure the space sector progresses with the other important areas without being hindrance to them.

According to the Article VI of the Outer space treaty 1967[x] when activities are carried out in space, the international organization and the state parties responsible for the activity shall bear the full responsibility for the program. This also means the country where the space activity was conducted is also responsible for the damage it may have caused to any other country. This makes space exploration activity not just an organization's or a company's activity, it is a national activity where the whole country and its government is responsible.

This article of the treaty highlights the importance and cautiousness that should be given to a space activity by the country when it happens within its borders. Whether it is done by any private individuals or the countries space agency itself, it should be under the administration of the countries government. Space law should be able to make sure the seamless integration of the space sector into the countries legal system.

Possession of Space
Vladimir Putin the Russian president staked claim on Venus back in 2020, which brings us to an important question, whether space can be claimed or owned by a specific person, nation or even an organization.

As of now many countries have their own satellites or their own personal research stations on the extra terrestrial bodies and space in general. As human history shows us about newly discovered areas, countries or places have been subjected to an ownership and colonization issues, same could be said about space. The outer space treaty gives us a clear answer to this problem, nobody owns space.

Article II of the outer space treaty states:
"Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by any means".[xi] This shows us that, we cannot ever view space as some place or land that could be conquered. In simple terms we could say-'Nobody owns space'.

This also means 'everyone owns space' in one way. As of today we have countries that have established stations in moon and are conducting research there. But the area that they have, cannot be considered as their "property" and in no way do they have complete ownership over that area. There are relevant provisions in place which prohibits one country or a company to have too much area in space under their control even if it is for research and educational purposes. Establishing a satellite or a station in moon or any other space body doesn't give them ownership of the area.

The idea of possession in space law is a very important area that needs very much further research and apt laws. It is a necessity that space remains neutral and peaceful area and not be subjected any countries political greed. The lack of clarity in territorial laws is evident in this area of law, and it's the responsibility of the law makers to ensure the proper conduct of humans in space.

Commercialization of Space

On May 300, 2020 Space X launched its first joint manned mission with NASA in the Crew Dragon Spacecraft. This mission called Demo-2, was the first time a private company collaborated with a government space agency to send manned missions. This is an example of the advancement of private entities in space exploration and showcases the influence of private individuals in the space sector of a country.

Space has shown huge potential as an investment opportunity through the years and many businessmen have taken the opportunity to use it to their maximum potential. The areas of Internet connectivity, Earth observation, Satellite imaging, Navigation services and many more sectors are very much influenced by the private entities through the space sector in today's world. But as stated before, nobody owns space or its objects and therefore we should be able to regulate these private entities from monopolizing space through their abundant resources.

The government should have strict legal measures in place and the legal power to regulate this private intervention into the space sector. As mentioned before, Article VI of the Outer space treaty gives the entire responsibility to the country for the actions in space of anyone, even the private entities, even when done without the authorization from the country themselves. This article ensures that the countries will remain vigilant over their actions of their private players.

Space tourism is an emerging area in the space industry, even though right now it requires huge resources for the travelers, the progress is fast in this field. There may come a time when even the common civilians could easily travel to space and for this to happen we have a lot to advance both technically and legally.

Space colonization is another legal matter that requires attention. Elon musk, the owner of Space X have made his intentions clear several times about a settlement on Mars.

Even though this idea not practical right now, it is not a far- fetched or impossible idea with the progress we are making now. Things like this, really highlights the need for a good legal framework regulating private companies and deciding the limit of their abilities in space.

Militarization of Space

On February 14, 2024, US released news about Russians conducting tests for making a nuclear weapon which could be operated from space and this news was of great alarm and debate. Even though the Russian president Vladimir Putin denied the allegations, it is still an important factor that requires our attention.

Russia had launched an attack on Ukraine satellites on the beginning of their war which greatly affected Ukraine's communication which shows us that space is already used as a military battlefield. Countries like US, India, China, greatly relies on space for military security and satellites have become an indispensable in a nation's military strength. A space war is not a distant possibility but it has already begun in today' world.

Article IV for the outer space treaty states, "States parties to the treaty undertake not to place in orbit around any weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner"[xii]. While this article does not strictly de militarize space, it does forbid weapons of mass destruction like nuclear weapons. In these decades after the Outer space treaty's establishment, space was heavily used as military extension by the countries, even though we haven't gone nuclear on space due to this treaty, it is still not a distant reality. It is a relief that countries have the authority to check space stations established in celestial bodies like the moon for any weapons or military camps.

Even though we have laws and government regulations to not turn into the space into battlefield, it is neither updated nor properly defined. The militarization of space is a grave issue that requires our attention and the laws behind this need more stringent provisions. If this is not properly considered we could very well be facing a space war in the near future.

Management of Space:

On 2015, Space X launched the first fully reusable rocket to space called Falcon 9[xiii] and this was marked as one of the most important technological progress achieved in rocket technology. This also shows the attention is starting to be given to the general situation and management of space.

Since the dawn of Space Age, more than five thousand rockets have been launched to space. This has also resulted in about thirty thousand objects that hurtling near the earth's orbit[xiv] till now. This is an important matter that we need to pay attention, especially for those in the field of law. The environmental protection law, have advanced very much in this era than ever before. Human beings are starting to realize the need for protecting the environment as a necessity.

But the management of space and its protection still requires much more attention than it has now. Space law needs to upgraded for the protection of space and space needs to be considered as an extension of our environment itself. Lawyers need to bring their attention to this and the proper enforcement of space law need to be in place for the protection of earth as a whole. The efforts made by companies like Space X needs more support and needs to be adapted more for space activities.

Article IX of the Outer space treaty states, "A state party to the treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by its nationals in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other State parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, may undertake consultations with those state parties before proceeding with such activity or experiment"[xv]. This article even though does not directly address the problem of space debris, it still highlights how a state party should ensure their space exploration would not create a hindrance to others who wants to explore space themselves and it also states the need for consultation to avoid such harmful interference.

Proper registration of Space objects according to article VIII [xvi] of the Outer space treaty is also an important area in the management of space. Proper registration of the things that we launch into space is also required according to the Registration convention 1976 to prevent the potential harmful use of space due to unverified and unregistered space activities.

Challenges in Space law

It is clear from what we have discussed till now that space law faces several challenges in the current time and one of the major issues is the lack of proper space law itself. The major set of rules in the area of space law is still mostly from the Outer space treaty which came into force way back in 1967. But it's very clear that the treaty needs to be updated or, some new treaty should be made for an efficient administration of space activity all around the world.

The major problem in passing new space laws is the worldwide acceptance that it requires. Unlike making domestic laws, a strong set of space law should be agreed by almost every country with the capacity of doing space activities. The passing of space law would require the agreement of many committees such as, United Nations Committee on the peaceful uses of Outer space (COUPUOS), General Assembly of the United Nations, International telecommunication Union (ITU) and the other bilateral and multilateral treaties between the countries.

In the current scenario where more countries are emerging as the major players it is difficult to make all of them come to a joint agreement.

Another reason includes the lack of proper awareness about the need for a proper legal framework for space. As India is one of the emerging major players in Space, it has the power to influence the decisions in this area and make other countries aware of the need for space laws. As a lesser known area of law, lawyers all around the world also have a big responsibility in the making of space law.

Another reason is the rapid technological advancement that is happening all around the world. A new legal framework should be able to enclose all these advancement and should be able to regulate them. This would need resources and effort from all the nations for a long period of time.

So, it is very important that we see the need for a new set of space law by overcoming all the hurdles. Because it is not the need of a few nations, it is the need for earth has a whole.

In conclusion, as humanity venture further into the cosmos it becomes apparent the need for a robust set of laws for space. The people, especially the young generation need to acknowledge the space as the final frontier for humanity and a set of laws to regulate space as a necessity. Lawyers as said above, has a big role in the enforcement and making of these laws. May the day come when humanity unites to establish proper order, not only on Earth but across the cosmos, allowing everyone to cherish space as a harmonious extension of our shared home.

"I think we need to acknowledge the legitimate and important role of the government in space. It's�.the only way to ensure that commercial space activities don't harm the exploration and use of outer space for all of us" - - Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX)

  1. Andrew J Hailey, Space law and Government(Apple century crofts,1963)
  2. International treaties and agreements, United Nation Office for Outer Space Affairs, (last visited Feb.15,2024)
  3. International Civil Aviation Organization, "Chicago Convention on international Civil Aviation(1944)", (last visited Feb.16,2024)
  4. Rescue agreement, Jan.22, 1968, 19 U.S.T.7570, 672 U.N.T.S, (last visited Feb. 16,2024)
  5. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other celestial bodies, Dec. 18, 1979, 18 I.L.M. 1434, (last visited Feb. 16, 2024)
  6. NASA, Space Shuttle program, (last visited Feb 17,2024)
  7. National Defense Education Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-864, 72 Stat. 1580 (1958), (last visited Feb.17,2024)
  8. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  9. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  10. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  11. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  12. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  13. SpaceX, (last visited Feb.20, 2024)
  14. CNN, "Nearly 30,000 objects are hurtling through near-Earth orbit. That's not just a problem for space", CNN (Feb.21,2024), (last visited Feb.22,2024)
  15. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)
  16. Outer space treaty, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205, (last visited Feb. 13,2024)

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