Space Law is over 50 years old, but offers us an opportunity to consider how we want to build the future.
When I say I believe in Space Law, I mean that it is significant to me. It is a career choice I made, not only to reshape my life and that of my family, but I believed it was an opportunity for me to contribute to the future of global society. That is a long way of saying I thought that being a Space Lawyer sounded cool.
And it is! I immediately felt like I had an ace up my sleeve for small talk conversations. In a group of non-space lawyers, I had something unique to contribute to the conversation. People had questions that I could answer (disclaimer: does not constitute an attorney-client relationship).
I enjoyed these conversations because I could see the curiosity and enthusiasm in almost everyone I spoke to. Yes, sometimes I would run in to old prejudices against lawyers. A person would bemoan ruining the purity of the cosmos with the bureaucracy of lawyers. But that isn’t the point.
Let’s start with regular law. Law can be viewed as the binding customs and practices of a community, and communities depend on people being able to interact in a fair, consistent, predictable way.
The law, like any tool, can be abused or misused, applied as a form of oppression by one group against another. The law is not immune from that, but it is not in and of itself a societal evil. Far from it, the progress of civilization has depended on the rule of law.
So applying the law to outer space does not mean we are trying to ruin the universe. At least, not in that act. Human activity in outer space will necessarily contaminate the cosmos. We will be introducing ourselves to an environment we have not previously been present in. We will bring with ourselves everything we have ever been. That includes the good and the bad.
For true believers, the promise of space exploration is the opportunity to project the best of ourselves into this new frontier. And this is where I see people’s’ excitement. Because it is a new frontier, it is almost a blank slate. We do not have to take for granted any specific previous rules or assumptions about how this is suppose to work.
This is where the United Nations found itself in the late 1950s, leading up to ratification of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967.
It is a document I think everyone should read, as it becomes more applicable to the future of our civilization. It reads as both a list of lofty ideals, and a warning against the colonialism of our past. The following is just from the preamble:
Recognizing the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,Outer Space Treaty
Inspired by the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space,
Believing that the exploration and use of outer space should be carried on for the benefit of all peoples irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development,
Desiring to contribute to broad international cooperation in the scientific as well as the legal aspects of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,
Believing that such cooperation will contribute to the development of mutual understanding and to the strengthening of friendly relations between States and peoples,
Fifty years later, this is still what Space Law offers the world: not only inspiration, which some may say is just for the true believers, but also recognition of mankind: past, present, and future.
Our activity in space made a great leap in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the next 50 years, we went from launching artificial satellites around the Earth, to launching and keeping humans in orbit, and landing humans on the Moon. And on the ground, our communications, broadcasting, and remote sensing of our planet have grown exponentially.
And yet, that is just the tip of what is possible in Outer Space. Space Law, therefore, has not yet been tested beyond a fraction of that extent. It is still open for debate, interpretation, and application.
That ambiguity is not a fault, but a treasure. Going back to the conversations I have been lucky to have with lawyers and non-lawyers alike, the curiosity and excitement I see in people’s eyes is, I think, a result of their realization that the future of human civilization in space is not set in stone.
There is time and room for people to work together to decide what they want the future to look like. It is here, at this point, in which I think Space Law transcends itself. People will bring not only their personal history to the debate, but will bring the history of all mankind. Space Law is a mirror which we hold up to ourselves as a society and a civilization.
Space Law offers the world an opportunity to re-contextualize all of our problems, all of our past transgressions and omissions, and to imagine how to make the future a better place. This is not to suggest that we forget current injustices, or write over the past. To the contrary, Space Law is practice for dealing with problems as a society. And when you are done practicing, take what you have learned back to whatever you were working on before.
Inspiration and recognition that the future is an opportunity to consider the common interest of all mankind. That is what Space Law offers the world.