The exploration of outer space has been a source of fascination for centuries, and with the advent of space exploration, the need for laws to govern activities in space has become increasingly important. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) is the forum for the development of international space law. This committee has concluded five international treaties and five sets of principles on space-related activities. The five international treaties that underpin space law are overseen by UNCOPUOS and are a combination of policies codified in these laws and policies issued by the President.
These treaties are the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Space (the “Astronaut Rescue and Return Agreement”), Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the “Liability Convention”), Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the “Registration Convention”), Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Agreement”). The United States is a signatory to the first four of these treaties, but not to the fifth, the Moon Agreement. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, Austria manages the UN, and COPUOS is mainly concerned with non-military space activities. The Conference on Disarmament is where most international debates are held on the “militarization” or “weaponization” of space and whether a treaty should be negotiated to prohibit weapons in outer space that are not already prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This treaty prohibits nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but not other space weapons.
Space law covers issues such as exploration regulations, the use of weapons, damages, rescue efforts for astronauts in distress, environmental regulations, and space activity records. It is a combination of science and politics as world leaders must study how to regulate activity in space. The International Institute of Space Law (IISL) is an organization that promotes research and education in space law. It sponsors an annual Manfred Lachs space mock court competition with five regional rounds (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America) followed by semifinals and finals.
Space lawyers work with government agencies to regulate these types of activities as well as with private agencies to ensure their compliance with existing regulations. They must figure out how to resolve conflicts while dealing with ethical issues that govern who should have priority. Students who wish to study space law can take one of these programs or choose related courses as part of their own personalized legal study within a more generalized law degree program. Despite all the agreements made by UNCOPUOS and other international peacekeeping initiatives, many nations are still reluctant to sign international agreements that limit their power and control in space exploration. This was seen recently with Red Bull Stratos project which was watched with great interest by NASA officials and other space regulators and enthusiasts.