Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Ground Control to Major Tom: The Role of International Law in the Rescue of Astronauts

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Ground Control to Major Tom: The Role of International Law in the Rescue of Astronauts

[Aysenur Zeynep Ozmen is a PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Aberdeen School of Law. Her research interests are aviation and space law, autonomous vehicles and the legal aspects of artificial intelligence – all the cool stuff of law.]

“This is space. It does not cooperate.”

Mark Watney, The Martian (2015)


David Bowie’s Space Oddity was released in 1969, coinciding closely with the Apollo 11 moon mission, which contributed to the song’s popularity. Still a staple of many of our Spotify playlists, the song tells the story of an astronaut named Major Tom’s journey into space and his loneliness because of the loss of communication between him and Earth. Thanks to Bowie’s soulful voice and the song’s haunting lyrics, listeners can feel the emotional loneliness of an astronaut travelling through the endless void of space. Furthermore, this song has become a cultural sign, reflecting the relationship between the marvellous imagination of humanity and the magnificent but frightening space, and the impact of the space race on society.

If we moved from the world of music to the cinema, it would be impossible not to mention The Martian. This film is a 2015 science fiction based on Andy Weir’s breathtaking novel of the same name. Directed by Ridley Scott, this film is about the struggle for survival of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is stranded on Mars and the operation to rescue him from Earth. After being abandoned in a storm, Watney tries to survive on Mars by growing potatoes with ingenious methods, while his team and scientists on Earth race against time to rescue him. Amidst the dramatic landscapes of the red planet, Scott’s work captivates audiences with the message that through determination, science and solidarity, human beings can survive even in the most difficult of circumstances.

From the eye of Ridley Scott to the voice of David Bowie, pieces such as The Martian and Space Oddity have one frightening yet exhilarating thing in common: Being alone in space! 

Among the fictional calls for help echoing in the depths of space, this work will analyse the international legal rules that address solutions to these interstellar SOS scenarios and, most importantly, will call on authorities to increase cooperation. How do we, the Earthlings, deal with the legal aspects of protecting lives beyond our pale blue dot? If you have taken your protein pills and put your helmets on, let us seek the answer to this cosmic question together.

Cosmic Codes: The Foundations of Space Law

Looking at the cosmic depth of human history, it is safe to say that space exploration stands out as one of the most daring adventures. However, it was also quickly realised that our imagination, as reflected from the pens of writers to between the lines, from the eyes of directors to the silver screen, from the ears of musicians to emotional chords, required more than just rockets and technology. This brand-new adventure demanded a unique legal framework.

In the face of the magnificence of the cosmos, even the approach that thought law was confined to the walls of a cold courtroom began to disappear. The first chords of this interstellar legal symphony were struck with the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, also known as 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Like Major Tom in Bowie’s famous song, this Treaty recognised astronauts as “envoys of mankind”. The Treaty’s purpose with this was not just to make a kind gesture; it was to demonstrate our shared responsibility to protect cosmic travellers, a sense of the united spirit that we could witness in stories like Foundation.

It is fair to say that one of the most striking notes of this celestial concerto played just after the Outer Space Treaty. The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts, and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, in short, the Rescue Agreement, entered into force in 1968. This fresh blood at the turn of the 70s was not only an extension of the Outer Space Treaty, but also a strong call for unity. It is a significant agreement that encourages global coordination and collaboration in space activities and works to protect persons involved in space exploration. It set out clearly what countries should do while space activities were being carried out, asking them to help astronauts who were in trouble in space or on our pale blue dot. Much like how Bowie’s Major Tom hoped for a connection to “ground control,” this agreement aimed to ensure no astronaut felt left behind, or… up!

A provision regarding the rescue of astronauts is set out in article 5 of the Outer Space Treaty. This provision indicates that States are required to provide ‘possible’ assistance in the event of an accident or emergency landing. With possible assistance, it can be understood that States must have the necessary technological, economic, and operational infrastructure to carry out a rescue action. In addition, in the Outer Space Treaty, on the territory of another State Party or on the high seas is used to refer to the aid to be made here. However, Rescue Agreement draws a much wider scope by saying jurisdiction of a Contracting Party or have been found on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State in its article 4. Even the surface of a celestial body or orbits can be included in places that are not within the jurisdiction of any state.

However, as with many stories, films or songs, the narrative of space law is not without its challenges. While these treaties may look as clear as stars on paper, they are often challenged by issues such as national control concerns, differences in technology levels and the complex world of global politics. It is therefore time to adjust our telescopes!

Galactic Diplomacy: The Balance of Collaboration and National Interests

The Martian and Space Oddity are not only fictional narratives, but also reflective mirrors illuminating the complex interplay between global cooperation and national entitlements. Within their stories is a subtle commentary on the fragile balance between shared goals and individual aspirations. In this way, they even contribute to the ‘art is for society’ approach.

Consider the stratospheric costs of space missions – these costs are out of this world! The story of Mark Watney’s survival and heroic rescue in The Martian emphasises the enormous organization involved. But it is not just a question of resources; it is a dance of diplomacy. Which state can offer what facilities? If a mission goes wrong, who will take responsibility? Such problems raise questions about global responsibility, transparency, and collective sense of duty.

The boundless expanse of space has become a constant reminder of our need to come together and work cooperatively. But the path to cooperation has lots of challenges. The protection of technological secrets, national security concerns and complex world politics may pose various obstacles to the dream of joint exploration. However, it is up to us to overcome these obstacles. We need to understand that space is not only a physical frontier, but also an area that requires cooperation and diplomacy.

Stories, films, and songs, especially pieces like The Martian and Space Oddity, show us that space is not only about exploring unfamiliar places, but also about the need to work together and build partnerships in this new frontier. The challenges presented by space are cosmic in scale and nations need to act in harmony to overcome them. As we explore the depths of space, it would not be unfair to say that it is critical for the success of this exploration that the nations of the world move to the same tune.

Harmonizing the Stars: Towards Collaborative Endeavours in Space Exploration

The dangers that lie ahead, both in deep space and en route to space, remind us how vital it is to ensure the safety of astronauts. Examples such as Major Tom’s communication problem or Mark Watney being trapped on Mars are reflections of real crisis moments that may occur in space.

Although the 1968 Rescue Agreement is the most important international legal instrument dealing with the rescue of astronauts, in the more than half a century since it came into force, there have been tremendous advances in both space technologies and the scope of space exploration. As a natural result, current space missions have become much more complex, and the risks and scenarios that can be faced in such operations have diversified and intensified.

To expertly manage these new risks and keep astronauts safe, the international community needs to develop new, detailed, and comprehensive protocols and agreements. These agreements should include which countries and which organisations can use what technological tools, communication protocols, joint training programmes and information sharing in times of potential crisis, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by modern technology. Furthermore, establishing guidelines on how and when the international community should mobilise resources in any rescue operation would also be a useful step in protecting the envoys of humanity.

Space, like the depths of the oceans, is a realm beyond borders and imagination. It is therefore vital that the international community comes together increasingly and speaks a common language to guarantee security and cooperation in this cross-border region. A stronger legal basis for current and future space missions will not only safeguard astronauts, but also all of humanity.


The role of international law is of indisputable importance in our exciting exploration of the unknowns of space. From Bowie’s haunting melodies to The Martian, cultural reflections remind us of that international cooperation in space missions is not only a technological imperative but also a responsibility. It is impossible to successfully navigate this vast dark blue void without a solid and fair legal structure between the States. Our capacity to deal with the problems we may face in both current and future space missions will improve in direct proportion to the framework provided by international law. By strengthening this legal framework, we can not only reach greater distances in our space journey, but also a more fair and sustainable future. 

“This is space. It does not cooperate.” You are absolutely right, Mr Watney, but we can cooperate, together! Also, it is time to change the song: Planet earth is blue, and we have a lot to do!

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