Space programs around the world have a long history of productive cooperation. But issues fundamental to uncharted elements of human space exploration, such as regulations on space mining and space garbage cleanup, remain on shaky legal footing, as practitioners of the burgeoning field of space law struggle to sort through an uncharted landscape potholed with knowledge gaps and new territory. Should missions to asteroids serve science and the common good, or mining companies, or some combination thereof? Questions like these, in a matter of decades, have gone from thought exercises to legal work.
The international community took its first stabs at putting space under legal jurisdiction during the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with bilateral talks between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1958, shortly after the launch of the first Sputnik satellite. Held mostly in letters between then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, these early conversations ended in impasse: The Soviet Union was confident of its technological superiority at the time and saw no reason to join with the United States in regulating space, thereby abdicating a perceived advantage in that arena. By 1959, the U.N. had created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the international community began to move beyond the space age’s brief but disquieting unregulated period. The committee’s attempts at a legal framework led to a cluster of international treaties, which established a basis for the somewhat amorphous set of international agreements and domestic regulations that comprise space law today.
The four widely ratified foundational treaties were sweeping in scope: They established space, including celestial bodies, as part of a shared human heritage, not to be claimed or weaponized by any state. Other provisions established freedom of exploration; the obligation to rescue astronauts in distress, should the need arise; nations agreed to carry full legal responsibility for any object launched within national borders; and an international registry was created to monitor all man-made objects in space.
The era of the International Space Station poses legal challenges the Apollo astronauts could scarcely have imagined: Whereas space travel began in a world in which each national space program ran its own missions, manned space missions today are more likely to involve intricate minute-to-minute international cooperation predicated on a dizzying mesh of regulatory arrangements at the intersection of domestic and international legal systems.
Picture: NASA (STS-135 Shuttle Mission Imagery direct link) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons