Did you know that there was a time when land owners owned the vertical space that extended from their property all the way up into space! With the advent of air travel, the laws had to change. Governments then decided that land owners would own their land up to 500 feet above ground level and anything above that, going up infinitely, would be owned by the government. This helped to govern air space for the airlines… until the space program was introduced and a whole new set of concerns were born.

Since spacecraft now travel around the earth, they traverse the orbits of many countries. It was ultimately decided that a country’s laws end somewhere between where the highest airplane can fly and where the lowest satellite orbits, approximately 19 to 99 miles above the Earth. In accordance with the space laws, no country can claim the sovereignty of the moon or other celestial body. That is to say that no country can enforce its’ laws on the moon or in outer space. This gave way to what is known as Extraterritorial Jurisdiction, or the legal ability of a government to exercise authority beyond its normal borders, and into space.

The advent of Space Laws, which have been around since the 1960’s, led to more questions about the governing of space. Some questions are quite simple to answer. “What would happen if someone committed a crime on a spacecraft?” If an astronaut committed a crime on a spacecraft, they would be subject to prosecution by the country of their spacecraft. While others are a bit more vague. ‘What if that person committed a crime on the surface of the moon?” Since no single governing body owns the moon, the answer is less clear cut. However, Space Laws are instrumental in the effective functioning of today’s space community. Here, we examine a few space law facts.

Fact #1: The term “space law” refers to the national and international laws and customs that govern our activities in outer space. The basis for today’s space laws began with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This treaty established several principles that have since been broadened in subsequent treaties and laws that define the outer space legal landscape today.

Fact #2: “The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit, and in the interest of, all mankind.” This holds true for everyone, regardless of economic or scientific development. All celestial bodies and outer space are free for exploration and use by all States and freedom of scientific investigation id encouraged.

Fact #3: “The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and no weapons of mass destruction are permitted in outer space.” Part of the original Outer Space Treaty, this article assures that no nuclear, or other mass destruction weapons may be carried or installed on any celestial body or space station. While scientific research is encouraged, including military missions that are used for peaceful purposes, the testing of weapons or the practice of military maneuvers on celestial bodies is forbidden. In space, peace rules!

Fact #4: “States shall retain jurisdiction and control of their space objects and any personnel thereon.” This refers back to the question of what would happen to someone who commits a crime in space. While crime in space has not been much of a problem, astronauts are pretty amazing people after all who take pride in their work, it is important to know that should a crime be committed, the State who governs the spacecraft would be responsible for the prosecution of the crime.

Fact #5: “States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.” This one is pretty simple. It’s the basic “you break it, you bought it” philosophy. Well, maybe not quite that simple but the basis applies. States are responsible for fixing any damage that they cause while in outer space.

Fact #6: “States shall avoid harmful contamination of outer space.”  This one is just bit more complicated. While the Outer Space Treaty encourages scientific exploration in outer space, this article was written to help avoid harmful contaminations or adverse changes to the environment while pursuing those scientific endeavors. As outer space is a delicate environment, introducing matter from our world can be a detriment to the moon or other celestial bodies. We want to keep space pristine and clean!

Fact #7: The International Space Station is a cooperative program between Europe, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan. Home to crews of astronauts and cosmonauts from several nations, the International Space Station’s laws are governed by three levels of the International Space Station Agreement, or IGA. Typically, those aboard the ISS are governed by the laws of their respective countries. So, in layman’s terms, if a US astronaut commits a crime on the ISS, they are subject to punishment by the US. However, as with other laws, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if a US astronaut were to commit a crime against a Canadian counterpart on the ISS, they may be subject to prosecution by Canada.

Fact #8:  Human beings will soon be able to travel into outer space on spacecraft operated by private companies. The first of these flights are being researched now and are expected to begin by taking passengers on orbital spaceflights to the International Space Station. Of course, commercial spaceflights for humans will open up a whole new world of legal issues. The FAA is already working on licensing and safety criteria for private spacecraft and four states, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia have already passed laws limiting space tourism under state laws.

With advances in technology continue to thrive, and more and more work is done to expand space travel and exploration, Space Laws continue to take on greater importance today. While the space law community will surely face challenges, Spaceflight laws and lawyers will be at the forefront of helping the space community. Very exciting times indeed!