Space Law

Space Law

Domestic Space Law

U.S. space law is codified in several laws beginning with the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA Act), signed into law on July 29, 1958.  The NASA Act created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct a U.S. civilian space program, with military space activities assigned to the Department of Defense (DOD).  The Act has been amended several times over the decades. The current version is posted on NASA’s history office website.

Other important U.S. laws relating to civil and commercial space, codified in Title 51 of the U.S. Code, include:

  • the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act (P.L. 98-575) that designated the Department of Transportation (DOT) as the federal agency responsible for facilitating and regulating commercial space launch activities (a task currently assigned within DOT to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation),
    • its 1988 amendments (P.L. 100-657) that provided for government indemnification of commercial space launches for amounts between $500 million and $2 billion (which was extended in several subsequent laws)
    • its 2004 amendments that provide for regulation of commercial human spaceflight
    • the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (see below) makes additional updates/modifications
  • The 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act (P.L. 102-555), which repealed an earlier law (the 1984 Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act) and established a regime for facilitating and regulating commercialization of land remote sensing satellites while returning responsibility for the Landsat system to the government. Oversight of commercial remote sensing satellites is assigned to the Department of Commerce and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • The 1998 Commercial Space Act (P.L. 105-303), which, inter alia, gave the Department of Transportation regulatory authority over commercial spacecraft that return from space (“reenter”), as well as launches into space.
  • The 2005 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act (P.L. 109-155) Among the provisions of this act, passed while Congress was under Republican control, was an endorsement of President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. The law emphasizes, however, that NASA’s programs should be balanced among space science (which uses robotic spacecraft to study the universe and explore the solar system), human spaceflight (President Bush’s directive to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars “and beyond”), and aeronautics. This Act also established the International Space Station as a “national laboratory” to emphasize that its use is not limited to NASA-sponsored research. Another important provision is language similar to what was included originally in a 1982 authorization for the Department of Defense (the “Nunn-McCurdy” provision) that sets cost overrun and schedule delay thresholds requiring DOD to notify Congress and take other actions. Congress adopted a similar (but not identical) approach for NASA in this 2005 NASA authorization act. NASA must report to Congress if any major NASA development program exceeds baseline development costs by 15% or if a schedule milestone is likely to be delayed by 6 months or more. If it exceeds the baseline cost by 30% or more, not only must Congress be notified, but no funds may spent on it after 18 months from the time of that notification unless Congress reauthorizes the program.
  • The 2008 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act (P.L. 110-422) This act, passed while Congress was under Democratic control, also endorsed the Vision for Space Exploration with the same stipulation that NASA’s programs be balanced among science, human space flight and aeronautics.
  • The 2010 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267). This act endorsed in part and modified in part President Barack Obama’s proposal to significantly change how the United States conducts its human spaceflight program.
  • The 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (P.L. 114-90).  This act makes a number of changes to U.S. commercial space policy, including granting property rights to U.S. companies that mine resources from asteroids. It also extends the “learning period” during which the FAA may not issue new commercial human spaceflight regulations until 2023 and extends third party indemnification until 2025.  Title I is the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, and some refer to it that way.
  • The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act  (P.L. 115-10), which focuses on continuity at NASA as a presidential transition took place.
  • The 2022 NASA Authorization Act, Title VII of the CHIPS and Science Act (P.L. 117-167), which continues support for the Artemis program as part of a broad portfolio of NASA programs in science, technology, aeronautics and human spaceflight.

Another important space-related law is the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 115-92), which creates a sixth military service, the U.S. Space Force, as part of the Department of the Air Force.

U.S. space policy is a combination of policies codified in these laws and policies issued by the President. For more on U.S. space policy, see our other sections on Civil, Military, Commercial, and International space activities.

International Space Law

Five international treaties and five “declarations and legal principles” were developed through the United Nations (UN), which maintains an Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, Austria. UNOOSA administers the U.N.’s Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. COPUOS is primarily concerned with non-military space activities. The U.N. Conference on Disarmament is the venue for most international discussions about the “militarization” or “weaponization” of space and whether a treaty should be negotiated to ban weapons from outer space that are not already banned by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. (The latter bans nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but not other space weapons.)

UNOOSA maintains a website with the text of the five U.N. space treaties and the five “declarations and legal principles” that the U.N. has adopted.

Synopsis of the Five U.N. Space Treaties

The following synopsis of the treaties is extracted from April 2004 testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee by Marcia S. Smith (the editor of this website) on potential international cooperation in President George W. Bush’s space exploration initiative.  UNOOSA maintains a searchable database of countries that have signed and/or ratified the agreements as they change.

The United States is a signatory to the first four of the following treaties. It is not a signatory to the fifth, the Moon Agreement, nor are any of the other major spacefaring countries (France and India signed the Moon Agreement, but have not ratified it).

Treaty on Principles Governing Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Outer Space Treaty”) Entered into force 10 October 1967. 103 ratifications and 25 signatures as of January 1, 2015.

  • Exploration and use of outer space* shall be for the benefit of, and in the interests of, all countries and shall be province of all mankind.
  • Outer space is free for exploration and use by all States and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
  • There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space and States shall facilitate international cooperation in such investigations.
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • Nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction shall not be placed in orbit or on celestial bodies or stationed in space in any other manner.
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
  • The establishment of military bases, installations or fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden; the use of military personnel for scientific research or other peaceful purposes is permitted.
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as envoys of all mankind.
  • States Parties are responsible for national space activities, whether undertaken by governmental or non-governmental (e.g. private sector) entities; the activities of non-governmental entities require authorization and continuing supervision of the appropriate State Party.
  • States Parties are internationally liable to other States Parties for damage caused by their space objects.
  • Studies and exploration of outer space are to be conducted so as to avoid harmful contamination and adverse changes to the environment of Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.
  • All stations, installations, equipment and space vehicles on the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be open to representatives of other States Parties on a basis of reciprocity.

Where “outer space” appears in this synopsis, the full phrase is “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies.”

Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, Return of Astronauts, and Return of Objects Launched into Space (the “Astronaut Rescue and Return Agreement“)

Entered into force 3 December 1968. 94 ratifications, 24 signatures as of January 1, 2015.

  • States Parties are to render humanitarian assistance to astronauts in distress or who have made an emergency or unintended landing on their territory, and to return the astronauts to the launching authority.
  • States Parties are to return objects launched into outer space or their component parts to the launching authority if they land on their territory.

Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the “Liability Convention”)

Entered into force 1 September 1972. 82 ratification, 21 signatures as of January 1, 2015

  • Procedures are created for presenting and resolving claims for damages caused by space objects on the Earth, to aircraft, or to other space objects.
  • The launching state is absolutely liable for damage caused on Earth’s surface or to aircraft in flight; if the damage is caused elsewhere (e.g., in space), the launching state is liable only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible.

Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the “Registration Convention”)

Entered into force 15 September 1976. 62 ratifications, 4 signatures as of January 1, 2015

  • States Parties are to maintain a national register of objects launched into space.
  • States Parties must report certain information about the launch and payload to the United Nations as soon as practicable, and notify the U.N. when an object no longer is in orbit.

Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Agreement”)

Entered into force 11 July 1984. 16 ratifications and 4 signatures as of January 1, 2015.

  • Exploration and use of the Moon shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, and due regard shall be paid to the interests of present and future generations and to the need to promote higher standards of living and conditions of economic and social progress and development in accordance with the U.N. charter.
  • The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind; neither the surface nor the subsurface nor any part thereof shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.
  • States Parties shall undertake to establish an international regime to govern the exploitation of the Moon’s natural resources as such exploitation is about to become feasible. The regime’s purposes include the orderly and safe development of the Moon’s natural resources, the rational management of those resources, the expansion of opportunities to use those resources, and an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the Moon, shall be given special consideration.
  • States Parties bear international responsibility for national activities on the Moon, whether by governmental or non-governmental entities. Activities of non-governmental entities must take place only under the authority and continuing supervision of the appropriate State Party.
  • All space vehicles, equipment, facilities, etc. shall be open to other States Parties so all States Parties may assure themselves that activities of others are in conformance with this agreement. Procedures are established for resolving differences.

For More Information

The International Institute of Space Law (IISL) (Twitter: @iisl_space) holds an annual colloquium on space law topics as part of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC).

IISL also sponsors the annual Manfred Lachs space moot court competition with five regional rounds (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America) followed by semi-final and finals in conjunction with the annual IISL colloquium.  The proceedings of each colloquium were published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for many years, but beginning with the 2011 edition, the publisher is Eleven International Publishing. Eleven now has all the IISL proceedings, as well as papers presented at the IISL-ECSL Space Law Symposia and the Eilene M. Galloway Symposia on Critical Issues in Space Law, available online by subscription. Follow the Manfred Lachs Space Moot Court on Twitter @SpaceLawMoot.

IISL has published several e-books that provide a history of the field of space law and of the IISL itself, including:

The American Bar Association published “The Little Book of Space Law,” by Matthew J, Kleiman, in 2013.

The Secure World Foundation and George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute published “A Guide to Space Law Terms” in 2013.

The University of Mississippi published the Journal of Space Law from 1973-2000, 2003-2012, and in 2019.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers a space law degree and sponsors an annual Space & Cyber Law Conference in Washington, DC, usually in the fall.  Follow the Space, Cyber and Telecom Law program at the university on Twitter @spacecyberlaw.   The University of Mississippi offers an LL. M. in air and space law.

Eilene M. Galloway, who passed away in May 2009 just shy of her 103rd birthday, was a prolific author on space law and space policy topics and one of the founders of IISL. Information about her and a list of her publications are available on our website.  The annual Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law was held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C every year between 2006 and 2019. In 2020 and 2021 it was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2022 symposium will be held elsewhere in Washington, D.C.  The first seven were sponsored by the University of Mississippi.  Since then, they have been organized by the IISL with the participation of the University of Mississippi, and sponsored by law firms, companies and academic institutions specializing in space.

Some of the educational institutions around the world offering advanced degrees or certificates in space law (or air and space law, or space, cyber and telecommunications law) include: McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Leiden University’s International Institute of Air & Space Law, Leiden, the Netherlands; the University of Cologne’s Institute of Air and Space Law, Cologne, Germany; University of Mississippi (see above), University, MS, United States; and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (see above).

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