Space Is No Vacuum for Lawyers

(Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash)
(Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash)

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In space, no one can hear you scream “billable hours!”

DLA Piper, the third-largest law firm in the US by revenue, is setting up a special department to advise companies involved in commercial space exploration. As reported by the Financial Times, it’s part of a growing number of major law firms looking to tap into the commercial space race.

Black Holes In Space Law

In the past, only countries had pockets deep enough (and geopolitical rivalries bitter enough) to fuel space exploration, but now private companies make up a larger part of the sector. NASA relies heavily on contractors like SpaceX, and even the International Space Station (ISS) is set to be replaced by a commercial heir apparent.

More commercial activity results in a natural increase in legal work — but also a particularly thorny landscape (and plenty of billable hours) as the legislative framework isn’t quite set up for commercial activity:

  • The guiding international framework is the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed into law by the UN in 1967. Its mandates include a ban on states sending WMDs into space, and a stipulation that the moon and other celestial bodies only be used “for peaceful purposes.”
  • Kai-Uwe Schrogl, president of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL), told The Daily Upside that while the law is robust, it mandates that nations regulate their own domestic space industries — and that’s where the legal framework becomes more threadbare.

Schrogl said private space travel should be regulated by national authorities in the same way they require citizens to have a driver’s license. “The states have to provide authorization, regimes, authorization, laws, and legislations where they spell out under what conditions they allow their nationals to conduct these activities under their supervision, and under their responsibility,” he said.

Space Junk and Squabbles: Schrogl believes there are two main areas where nations need to put new regulations in place — the first being sustainability. “There should be as much environmental regulation as necessary and useful. In particular, in the field of debris mitigation and prevention, but also environmental aspects of space launches and things like that.” The second is a more accessible arbitration process. “We have something for interstate disputes, and we can always go to the International Court of Justice, but this is not really attractive. We do not have anything on the private level.” There’s also the Musk approach to conflict resolution: a cage match.