What Law Governs the International Space Station?

by Julian Ku

Like many other geeky lawyer types, I have been scanning the arguments in the Supreme Court today for cluses about the ultimate result in Boumediene. But I couldn’t resist posting about this neat article about legal questions arising out of European participation on the International Space Station.

The space station currently exists as a legal patchwork of about 16 sovereign territories – modules and hardware belonging to the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan – joined together to form one orbital research platform. Each nation has legal authority over its part of the space station, as stated in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But no single European nation’s law will hold sway over the ESA’s Columbus laboratory module, which is slated to launch into orbit aboard the space shuttle Atlantis Dec. 6, and there is no one overarching European law.

However, astronaut lawbreakers won’t languish in limbo. Earlier this year, European legal experts agreed on a set of legal rules for Columbus during an conference entitled “Humans in Outer Space – Interdisciplinary Odysseys.”

Although astronauts are an exceptionally well-behaved group, other legal concerns may arise. An invention created by an enterprising astronaut on ISS will be patented in the nation that has jurisdiction over the module where work took place, not the nation of the inventor. Innovators onboard Columbus will have a choice of patenting their work in either Germany or Italy – although European patent agreements make this distinction less important.

I have to find it a bit amusing that the ISS is a series of different legal jurisdictions rather than a single jurisdiction. But I doubt any other approach is practical. National law and national jurisdiction, it seems, will always endure, even in outer space.


4 Responses

  1. Excellent post! A wonderful law review article on what the law should be inside. In the construction contracts to build the various modules I would bet that the contractors stipulated an applicable law as a matter of private international law. In the public space of the space station where the sovereigns get together maybe what should work would be Article 38 general principles of law common to civilized nations with an agreement between all on a charter of what those general principles might be so that everyone working together has a common understanding on contracts, torts, IP, and the rest of it. If one place should be a place of harmonization it would seem that on a space station there should be a set of rules that begin to form the kernel for a lex terra galactica (we should not presume we are the only lawgivers in the Universe – no personal experience involved and I have not been to Roswell or Area 51). Or maybe we could call this the Lex Area 51.



  2. This is quite interesting because it relates to a question I recently pondered in a case of mine. A possible witness in the case is one of the “space tourists” who have spent time on board the ISS and I idly wondered about what the issues would be with service of process. Based on this information, it would seem to depend on which module of the ISS they happened to be located in!

  3. Great post. But I was struck by the closing sentence:

    “National law and national jurisdiction, it seems, will always endure, even in outer space.” (emphasis mine).

    Always? Really? Can we imagine a pre-Westphalian time when a jurist might have remarked that sovereign monarchs will “always” endure as the basis of the flow of laws?

  4. Check out a previous story on this at Res Communis. This topic has also been covered in a few articles published in the Journal of Space Law (two come to mind: one on the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) for the ISS as an axtradition treaty and one on jurisdiction in general on the the ISS).


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