What does Int’l Space Law have to say about Private Space Exploration?

As Elon Musk sends his Tesla to the space, it’s time we acknowledge the infinite possibilities of our time. With a view to familiarize with the idea of commercial space exploration, a private company, spaceX has gained worldwide attention. Now that space travel is about to be privatized, International Space Law has become more important than it ever was. Ever since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, questions regarding the legal jurisdiction of space have surfaced. The Space Age started with competitive nations rushing for the moon, one after another. That was when the United Nations recognized the need for a guideline to maintain peace.

The very first UN body concerned with space was the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS). It was made permanent in 1959. With UNCOPUOS established as a permanent body, the international government and law making process had begun. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, otherwise known as the ‘Outer Space Treaty’ was signed and enacted in 1967.

Till date it has 105 state parties and 89 signatory states including Bangladesh. Bangladesh has acceded to the treaty, meaning that it had signified the agreement to be legally bound by its terms. The Outer Space Treaty has laid a formal framework for nations regarding peaceful exploration of the space.

The treaty has several major points to it. Some of the principal ones are:

  • Space is free for all nations to explore, and sovereign claims cannot be made. Space activities must be for the benefit of all nations and humans.
  • Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are not allowed in Earth orbit, on celestial bodies or in other outer-space locations.
  • Individual nations (states) are responsible for any damage their space objects cause. Individual nations are also responsible for all governmental and nongovernmental activities conducted by their citizens. These states must also “avoid harmful contamination” due to space activities.[1]

The 1967 Treaty made it official that the outer space is for everyone and anyone can explore it. This allows private sector to step right in and explore its possibilities. It also recommends that the moon and other celestial bodies would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It is much like the provision of High Seas in the UNCLOS Treaty of the 1982 which governs the law of the sea. Similarly, the Outer Space Treaty was enacted to legalize space exploration but for the benefit of the mankind as a whole.

The Outer Space Treaty and the other UN resolutions that followed have been successful in maintaining peace. But as we step into an era where commercial spaceflight is becoming a reality, challenges are coming our way. Privatized space travel will raise many complicated legal issues.

The Federal Aviation Administration of America is already in the process of establishing licensing and safety criteria for private spacecraft, a process that will continue to evolve as the industry matures. Space companies, legislatures and courts will need to address questions of liability in the event of accidents, the enforceability of liability waivers, insurance requirements, and the sufficiency of informed consent for passengers. Indeed, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia have already passed laws limiting the liability of space tourism providers under state tort law.[2]

In 2015, the American Senate passed the bill ‘H.R. 2262’ also known as the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The bill is entitled, ‘An Act to facilitate a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and creating more stable and predictable regulatory conditions, and for other purposes.’ Under one provision of H.R. 2262 commercial companies get the rights to any resources that they collect from celestial bodies.[3]

As new avenues of space expedition opens up, existing laws must make room for them. Privatization is necessary for creating better opportunities. Therefore, privatizing space travel would not only allow easier access to outer space but introduce other countries to this sector. Developing countries like Bangladesh must not be left behind and encouraged to participate. Bangladesh is an emerging ICT hub and one such milestone is the expected launch of Bangabandhu Satellite. It is high time for its Government to invest or encourage private entities towards space travel.



[1] Howell E, ‘Who owns the moon?| Space Law and Outer Space Treaties’ , Space.com [published on Oct 27, ’17, available on https://www.space.com/33440-space-law.html%5D

[2] Kleiman M., ‘Space Law 101: An Introduction to Space Law’, American Bar Association [available on https://www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/publications/the_101_201_practice_series/space_law_101_an_introduction_to_space_law.html%5D

[3] Grush L, ‘Private space companies avoid FAA oversight again, with Congress’ blessing‘, The Verge [published on Nov 16, 2015, available on https://www.theverge.com/2015/11/16/9744298/private-space-government-regulation-spacex-asteroid-mining%5D

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