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So, You Want to Be a Space Lawyer

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So, You Want to Be a Space Lawyer

Imagine this Hollywood pitch: It’s a TV show like Ally McBeal … but in space! This might seem far-fetched at first, but “space law” is poised to become a very big deal. Why not be your own Space Matlock? Space law could be a great career opportunity for legal eagles who want to “slip the surly bonds” of Earthly law.

Space law is not even a brand-new field. Space legislation has been an official global concern since the 1950s. Laws governing airspace date back to the early 20th century, but those laws were not sufficient in covering outer space issues.

As space exploration turns from a mainly scientific pursuit into a big business, regulations will become more important to protect everything from humans on Earth to life on other planets and every business interest in between.

Prior to the Elon-Musk-championed Space Captains of Industry Era, space law was mostly concerned with keeping space neutral (and safe). For example, according to the seminal Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the subsequent Moon Agreement of 1979, no country can own the moon, much less militarize it.

As technology advances and entities move on to colonizing and monetizing the solar system, space law will become even more complex. To understand where space law might go, it’s important to recognize its roots right here on terra firma.

A Brief History of Space Law and Earth’s First Space Lawyer
Space law’s origins are linked to the Space Race. While Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, space law didn’t become official until 1959 when the United Nations formed the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) which is under the umbrella of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs aka UNOOSA.

However, concerns about regulating space date back to when it became clear that mankind was destined for more than a few small steps across the Kármán Line, the internationally agreed upon border separating Earth’s atmosphere from outer space.

Andrew G. Haley (1904-1966) is thought to be the first ever practitioner of space law. After helping organize rocket company Aerojet in 1942—with none other than Theodore von Kármán of Kármán line fame—Haley became a founder the International Academy of Astronautics as well as the International Institute of Space Law in 1960. Haley even wrote the first book on the subject; Space Law and Government was published in 1963.

Haley is also the founder of space law’s sub-branch metalaw, which concerns itself with the mediation of alien races. Its core tenant is the Interstellar Golden Rule. Basically, according to Mr. Haley, if we should encounter an extraterrestrial species, we should treat them how we’d like to be treated. If niche law appeals, consider metalaw. You could one day be counsel to an otherworldly client.

So, What Exactly Does Space Law Regulate?
P08-We-Need-You-NASA-Recruitment-Poster-600x.jpg Image courtesy of NASA

Law is a moving target. Space law regulates everything from keeping Earth safe from extraterrestrial contaminants to keeping celestial bodies safe from Earthly contagions. What a bummer it would be to kill potential life on Mars with a contaminant from Earth. In fact, the Committee on Space Research’s Planetary Protection Policy is the precise reason the Mars rovers were not allowed to investigate the planet’s liquid water when it was confirmed in 2015. A rover is much less germy than a meat popsicle, so who’s going to protect Mars when we dirty humans land on the planet? Space lawyers, that’s who.

There are many other provisions in place from attempting to keep space debris from becoming hazardous to laws assuring that endangered astronauts are rescued. However, new economic pursuits like asteroid mining and space tourism will change the game requiring further regulation to keep space from becoming the Wild West 2.0.

Whether you’re a space advocate dedicated to protecting our solar system or a space shark with your eye on working for The [Space] Man, a career in space law might be for you.

Space J.D.s and Space Law Jobs
space shake hands.jpg Photo courtesy of Planetary Resources

While “Space Law School” isn’t a thing quite yet, there are ways to tailor your education to your extraterrestrial career goals. One possible small step in the right direction is to attend a law school that offers courses in space law. Additionally, working in the aeronautics field either as a civilian or with the military could provide valuable experience.

After earning your J.D., you could also consider additional credentials. The University of Mississippi, for example, offers a Master of Laws program in Air and Space Law.

The closest thing to an actual space law school in the U.S. is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Doctor of Juridical Science degree in Space Law. To qualify for entry to the J.S.D. Space Law program, you must already have a law degree or a Ph.D. in a related field. This academic degree would put you in the rarified air that overachieving space lawyers would surely enjoy.

For a primer of what to expect when studying space law, check out UNOOSA’s Education Curriculum on Space Law.

One you have your specialized degree(s) and ample knowledge of the space biz, there are all sorts of space law jobs out there. For example, a legal job post on SpaceX’s website requires that applicants have experience in “representation of aerospace/defense contractors,” and “familiarity with export compliance laws, government contracts, and basic understanding of the commercial space launch industry.” If that’s your bag, then Team Musk might be for you.

Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining authority, requires applicants for their general counsel position to be “an experienced aerospace lawyer.” Planetary Resources counts “experience with Space Policy or industry advocacy on Capitol Hill or a network to this community” as bonus experience. At least your future bosses have a sense of humor, as “diverse repertoire of lawyer jokes” is listed just two items below extra points for “additional experience with EU or Luxembourg law.”

There is plenty more information available for those interested in learning more about this stellar subject matter. The American Bar Association has a Space Law Committee under its Section of Science & Technology Law. They host conferences and even put out a newsletter. Speaking of other references, a number of books have been written on space law since Haley penned the first tome. The resources are out there, future cosmic attorneys.

To law school and beyond!

Main photo by Sanjit Bakshi, CC BY 2.0


Kristen O. Bobst is an LA-based writer and whimsy aficionado with a soft spot for all things geeky.

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