The art of space law

Space law and policy can be a fine art

The glittery, silver luggage tag on my suitcase reads “fly me to the moon”. It came free with a bottle of wine consumed one summer night back in 2011. It’s a tag worthy of Elle Woods, the indefatigable heroine of Legally Blonde, who shows up on the steps of Harvard Law School with more sparkle than counsel. As the only artist attending International Space University last summer, I suddenly found myself with a deep and profound connection to Elle Woods – excepting the blondeness.

Seated among of some of the brightest up-and-coming minds in the space industry for my first lecture on space law, I felt a combination of elation and terror. How could I possibly comprehend this subject, despite their promises that it would be accessible to all disciplines? I comforted myself with the fact that unlike Elle, I had read the textbook in advance. I was determined to find my way into the material, on a mission to discover what the arts could contribute to space law and policy.

The International Space University, located in Strasborg, France, holds a nine-week space studies program in a different global location each summer. The intercultural, interdisciplinary, and international credo of the university allows for a diverse group of participants to experience and learn about the broad aspects of the space industry and to become part of the growing “new space mafia” that lives and breathes space. In this column, I’ll be exploring the subjects that form the core of the space studies program and the space industry, through the unique filter of humanities. This week, I’ll be starting with a lesser-known aspect of the industry: space law and policy.

Sci-fi treaties

While on the surface space law is decidedly un-artsy, it attempts to answer questions seemingly more fit for the plot of a sci-fi novel than real life. If a satellite de-orbits and crashes into a farm, who is liable for the damages? Does the USA own the portion of the moon where the American Flag was planted? If an astronaut accidentally lands in your backyard, are they guaranteed safe passage home? If a private company starts mining an asteroid, do they own the resources?

These types of questions are addressed by the Outer Space Treaty, the prime treaty that governs international activities in outer space today. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, it entered into force in October 1967. Four further space law treaties followed on from this framework: the Rescue and Return Agreement (1968), the Liability Convention (1972), the Registration Convention (1975), and the Moon Agreement (1979).

According to the Outer Space Treaty, the nation state that launched a crashed satellite is responsible for the clean-up. No, the moon cannot be appropriated. The Rescue and Return Agreement states that a stranded astronaut is considered an envoy of mankind and therefore should be helped home. The question of asteroid mining, however, is not clearly defined. Public versus private ownership of space resources is a sticky point that is currently up for debate. With the recent shift from public to private and citizen-science space exploration, the time is ripe for a new look at the body of space law.

A new legal lexicon

New policy means new, clear language, and that’s exactly what Professor Henry R. Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University (GWU), is attempting to polish.

In December 2012, The Elliott School of International Affairs’ Space Policy Institute at GWU, in conjunction with the Secure World Foundation published the first guide to space law terms. Edited by Professor Hertzfeld, the guide is an important initial step to clarifying more than 80 space law words, terms, and phrases.

“The project evolved naturally from students’ concerns about the breadth and complexity of these terms. Foreign and non-law students especially experienced difficulties navigating space law phrases and words, many of which have no standard definition and can vary widely across contexts. It was our goal to create an accurate, user-friendly guide that addresses the space law vernacular in a variety of settings,” said Professor Hertzfeld in a recent press release.

The introduction of the guide notes that it is “the beginning of a process to develop a useful and comprehensive guide to terms commonly used in space law. All readers are invited to comment and suggest both corrections and revisions to these definitions as well as additional words, terms and phrases to be included in future editions.” User friendly, indeed.

The guide
provides seven different categories of definitions, including “simple English”, “legal dictionaries”, “unofficial sources”, and “language-sensitive” definitions. With such a scope, it makes for a fascinating and sometimes poetic read. The term “Astronaut” is defined as both “a person trained to work and travel in space” as well as “someone who sails among the stars.” It is in the language-sensitive definition, however, that the guide shows its holes. While the Russian variant “Cosmonaut” and Chinese “Taikonaut” are touched upon, there is no expansion upon the societal and cultural meaning of these subtle language differences.

Cue the artists

Slovenian theatre director Dragan Živadinov, director of the first zero-gravity theatrical production, Biomechanics Noordung, is also quite passionate about the power of space language. While building his own abstract space theatre lexicon, including “umbots” and “syntapiens”, he also unabashedly defines the difference between the more well-known “astronaut” and “cosmonaut.” According to him, an astronaut (star sailor) goes into space, reaches a planet or other celestial body, and plants a flag. A cosmonaut (universe sailor) goes into space to see if God exists or does not exist. This is the kind of bold definition that you won’t find in a legal directory, but makes for a rich and well-rounded discussion of the future of space exploration.

Zivadinov is not alone in his attempts to integrate with the space industry beyond artistic metaphor. His work is currently on display at University of California, Riverside ARTSblock as part of Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration. This contemporary art exhibition is focused on the democratization of space exploration and the intersection of art and civilian space travel. Comprised of twenty-five artists, organizations, collectives, and initiatives, it asks philosophical, ethical and cultural questions about the implications of moving from public to private enterprise in the space industry. With the opening reception a mere two days after the release of the still tenderly-developing Guide to Space Law Terms, and with all the glitterati of space-art subculture involved, it’s hard to imagine the timing as mere coincidence.

We are at a pivotal point in space exploration history. All facets of the space industry, even the legal beagles, have their doors wide open. It makes a whole lot of sense for artists to jump (or float) into that open space and jam their toes in before the door slams shut. Should artists feel guilty about swaying the public opinion at this vulnerable time? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting the best for the future of humankind. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with a great reception party, with or without lawyers.

Just ask Elle Woods.

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