Hitting the Books: Why Lawyers Will Be Critical to Tomorrow’s Orbital Economy

The skies above our heads could soon be filled with constellations of commercial space stations occupying low Earth orbit as human colonists take up residence on the Moon with an eye on Mars, if today’s robber barons get their way. . But that won’t result in the same freewheeling Wild West we saw in the 19th century, unfortunately, as the interplanetary settlers of tomorrow will bring their lawyers with them.

In their new book, The end of the astronauts: why robots are the future of explorationrenowned astrophysicist and science writer, Donald Goldsmith, and Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, argue for sending robotic scouts — with their lack of important necessities like life support systems — into the void ahead of human explorers. But what happens after these synthetic astronauts discover an exploitable resource or some wealthy jerk declares himself Emperor of Mars? In the excerpt below, Goldsmith and Rees discuss the challenges facing our emerging exoplanetary legal system.

Harvard University Press

Extract of The end of the astronauts: why robots are the future of exploration by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, published by Harvard University Press. © 2022 by Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees.

Almost all legal systems have experienced organic growth, the result of long experience that stems from changes in the political, cultural, environmental and other circumstances of a society. The first shoots of space law deserve the attention of those who might participate in the myriad activities envisioned for decades to come, as well as, perhaps, those who care to imagine how a Justinian code of law might arise in the realm of space.

Those who travel on spacecraft, and to some extent those who will live on another celestial object, occupy situations analogous to those aboard warships, including precedent laws to deal with crimes or antisocial behavior extremes. These laws generally assign to a single officer or a group of officers the power to try and impose sanctions, possibly pending review in the event of a referral to a higher court. This pattern seems likely to reappear in the first long-range voyages in the solar system and in the first settlements on other celestial objects, before the usual structure of legal systems for large corporations appeared on the scene.

As on Earth, however, most laws are civil law, not criminal law. A far greater challenge than dealing with criminal acts is to formulate an appropriate civil law code that will apply to disputes, whether domestic or international, arising from space activities carried out by nations, corporations or individuals. . For half a century, a small group of interested parties have developed the new specialty of “space law”, some of which already have the potential for immediate application. What happens if space junk launched by a particular country or company falls on an unsuspecting group of people or their property? What if astronauts from different countries claim parts of the moon or an asteroid? And most important in its potential importance, if not in its likelihood: who will speak on behalf of the Earth if we receive a message from another civilization?

Lectures on such topics have generated more interest than response. Human exploration of the moon has drawn attention and argument to related topics. During the 1980s, the United Nations seemed the natural arena in which to discuss them, and these discussions eventually produced the results described in this chapter. Today, as you can imagine, almost no one knows about the documents produced by the United Nations, let alone has plans to support countries that obey the directives of these documents.

Our hopes for a rational way to define and limit activities beyond our home planet will require broader agreements, as well as a way to enforce them. Non-lawyers reading existing and proposed agreements on the use of space should bear in mind that lawyers generally define words relating to specialized situations as “technical terms”, giving them meanings other than those that a simple reading would suggest.

For example, the word “recovery” in normal speech refers to recovering the value of something that has been lost, such as lost wages from injury. In more specialized usage, “resource recovery” refers to the act of recycling materials that would otherwise go to waste. In the vocabulary of mining operations, however, “salvage” has nothing to do with the loss of what was once owned; rather, it refers to the extraction of ore from the ground or seabed. The soft nature of the word contrasts with the more precise term “exploitation”, which often implies disapproval, although in legal matters it often only has a neutral meaning. For example, in 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea created an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to establish rules for the large part of the seabed that lies beyond the jurisdiction of any nation. Currently, 168 countries have signed the convention, but not the United States. According to the ISA’s website, its mining code “refers to the complete set of rules, regulations and procedures issued by the ISA to regulate the prospecting, exploration and exploitation of marine minerals in the international area. of the seabed”. In mining circles, no one blinks at plans to exploit a particular location by extracting its mineral resources. Discussions of space law, however, tend to eschew the term “exploitation” in favor of “reclamation”.

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Colin L. Johnson