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Careers in Space Law

Careers in Space Law

Attorneys have been involved in space law since the early 1960s, when the legal community started addressing many rules and regulations relating to outer space activities. Space law practice deals with the legally related behavior of governments and private individuals who have interacted in some manner with outer space.

Issues that Space Lawyers Address

Many situations requiring legal expertise crop up in the world of space. Space lawyers rely on already established space law but still enter into uncharted territory. An example of such an undefined area that affects what space attorneys do is the designation of where space begins. The Outer Space Treaty and most of the other international conventions do not define the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space. Another dilemma confronting space lawyers is the many provisions of the treaties, such as the ban on claims of sovereignty and property rights in space as well as the prohibition against military operations in outer space.

Generally speaking, space law attorneys handle two areas of outer space law:

  • International space law, which governs the actions of countries as they relate to other states.
  • Domestic space law, which governs actions within the state.

The Five Core Space Treaties

Space attorneys conduct most of their legal activities in keeping with space treaties, which resulted from the establishment of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1958. Many countries have ratified five major international treaties and conventions, which guide space law attorneys in international and domestic space law.

The first major space treaty was the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Outer Space Treaty). This treaty addresses many liability issues that attorneys would be involved in litigating. Countries that did not ratify the 1972 Liability Convention may still be legally obligated to abide by this treaty.

The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Rescue Agreement) was the next major treaty. Attorneys play an important role with respect to this treaty by providing counsel to government and public organizations concerning rescue and recovery efforts.

This was followed by the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (known as the Liability Convention). One of the biggest concerns space attorneys deal with regarding these five treaties is the issue of liability. Therefore, space law practice is to a great extent involved with such issues. Among the issues space law attorneys currently handle is damage caused by spacecraft and satellites, as well as indirect effects such as causing pollution in outer space that adversely affects Earth. In the future, as private tourism expands into space and private citizens go into outer space for pleasure, a very strong interest will arise in liability provisions and indemnification through the insurance industry.

Specifically, the Liability Convention requires payment of damages making restitution for "loss of life, personal injury or other impairment of health, or loss or damage to property of States or of persons, natural or juridical, or property of international governmental organizations" (Liability Convention, Article 1). A "launching state" is explicitly defined as a state that launches or procures the launching of a space object or a state from whose territory or facility a space object is launched, regardless of whether the launch was in fact successful.

The 1976 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (known as the Registration Convention) requires adherence to regulations regarding the tracking of all spacecraft and satellites. Attorneys counsel organizations on how to comply with these requirements.

The final major space treaty was the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (known as the Moon Agreement). The United States has not ratified this treaty, but legal counsel still needs to be aware of its ramifications, especially when working with ratifying countries on joint projects.

see also Law (volume 4); Law of Space (volume 1); Legislative Environment (volume 1).

Nadine M. Jacobson


Diederiks-Verschoor, Isabella Henrietta Philepina. An Introduction to Space Law, 2nd ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 1999.

Johnson-Freese, Joan, and Roger Handberg. Space, the Dormant Frontier: Changing the Paradigm for the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

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