How Space Regulation Works

Law & Order: SVU (Space Vehicles Unit)

Science fiction programs like "Star Trek" enjoy drawing parallels between space and the sea. In one aspect, at least, the link holds true: Like international waters, space is a commons usable by all but owned by none.

When the United Nations drafted the Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, it had centuries of seafaring tradition from which to draw; conversely, defining space law meant starting more or less from scratch. Because both are places of natural and man-made perils, where craft of diverse flags and functions may ply their trades, the law of the high seas strongly influenced the law of the low gees.

Like sea law, the U.N. treaties and agreements on space (see sidebar) focus on common-sense, good-neighbor principles:

  • Register your objects and spacecraft
  • Help astronauts in need
  • Stay out of each other's way
  • Return a country's space football if it falls in your yard
  • Be transparent and keep the lines of communication open
  • Use brake lights and turn signals
  • Don't use space for nukes or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)
  • Warn one another of Dangers from Outer Space (coming soon to a theater near you)

These space laws also lay out how traveling in space affects ownership (it doesn't); who can own celestial objects, orbits and space routes (no one); who bears responsibility for nongovernmental activity in space (the government in authority over the launching group) and who is liable if a launched object causes harm (the launching nation).

The U.N. has added to its treaties and principles as new technologies and uses for space have come online. Just as Sputnik sparked the first space policy talks, the moon race that followed drove the 1967 Outer Space Treaty's ratification. Its negotiation, along with a series of deadly accidents, led to the 1968 Rescue Agreement.

Related issues of the day spurred the 1972 Liability Convention and the 1976 Registration Convention. Nations adopted the Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting in 1982, at the dawn of satellite television.

Thanks to their broad, abstract language, these treaties and principles mesh well with international law, which, along with the U.N. Charter, still holds sway where gaps occur.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? The problem is, they have yet to be tested. That might soon change. The question is, when it does, will we be ready?

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