ASIL Launches the Space Law Interest Group

by Chris Borgen

Lawyers take note: science fiction is become less fiction and more science every day. In the last year we have witnessed the launch of the first commercially built capsule to resupply the International Space Station (ISS), the announcement of significant private ventures aimed at eventually mining asteroids (1, 2, see also this), the announcement of a plan to send two people on a privately-funded Mars flyby mission in 2018, an asteroid exploding over Russia on the same day that another flies by the Earth beneath many satellites, and the formation of a company attempting to land humans on Mars as of 2023… on a one-way trip.

Humanity’s exploration of space may only be in its earliest stages, but the legal implications are already widespread and varied.  Some activities, such as multilateral cooperation on “big science” projects like the ISS or responding to the threats posed by asteroids, are government-led.   But the private sector is also undertaking new, increasingly audacious projects—from expanding the commercial space launch market to mining asteroids. Space law is an evolving, robust practice area for international lawyers.

And so it is fitting that the American Society of International Law has started a new Space Law Interest Group (Space IG).  Brian Israel, of the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, and I are currently the Space IG’s co-chairs. We look forward to working on the group’s programs for this next year. (We should note that the person who most recently sent in a suggestion that the ASIL should have such an interest group is actually a high school student member of the ASIL. Talk about the future of the legal profession!)

While the actual activities of the Space IG will be designed by the members, the founding conception is that it will serve as a forum, resource, and community for scholars and practitioners of the international law governing the use and exploration of outer space.  And it is a community for ASIL Members to connect with others interested in these issues, and a bridge to other space law communities around the world.

More generally, the Space IG, along with the new International Law and Technology Interest Group, are part of the ASIL’s expanding programming on the relationship of society and technology. And there are many issues related to space and technology that warrant consideration by international lawyers.

Yet that observation is nothing new. Since the dawn of the space age, international law has played an essential role in the peaceful use of outer space by an ever-growing range of actors. The space applications that are ubiquitous in modern life—from communications and navigation to weather forecasts and disaster response—are enabled in significant measure by a robust international regime comprising a settled international legal framework as well as non-binding principles and guidelines.

It is an exciting time for space exploration and an important moment for international law. Issues of long-term sustainability, the prospect of audacious, unprecedented uses of space, and emerging commercial space activities present significant governance challenges and important roles for international lawyers.

We will be having the first meeting of the Space IG at this year’s Annual Meeting of the ASIL.  Regardless as to whether you are able to attend the Annual Meeting, if you are interested in possibly joining the group, please contact me.

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