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Writing the rules to govern the cosmos

Where mankind may go, lawyers are quick to follow - and futuristic as it may seem, some are busily writing the laws they hope will ultimately govern the universe.

By Sheera FrenkelCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2004

Which waste and recycling laws should govern a city on the moon? Will custody rights pertain to families in space stations? Can a "finders-keepers" attitude be applied to asteroids?

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Wherever man may go, lawyers are quick to follow, and for some decades now, a forward-thinking cluster of attorneys have their sights set on outer-space. From Sputnik to SpaceShipOne, "space lawyers" have stood beside astronauts, studying the exploration of outer space with careful intent.

Yet with a trek through the stars still more fantasy than reality, it is easy to question the need for recycling laws for the moon. Space lawyers, however, insist that their immediate purpose is simple: to preserve outer space from the lawless free-for-all that characterized exploration and colonization here on Earth.

"Outer space is a province of all mankind," says Sylvia Ospina, a member of the board of directors at the International Institute of Space Law. "There is not, and should not be, any privatization of outer space. It is a common thing that should belong to all."

To try to ensure that space remains a "common thing," space lawyers have drafted five international treaties under UN direction. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 provides the basis of all space law with its clear decree that no nation can claim ownership to any part of it, and all nations must agree to its peaceful use. The treaty was signed by all major space powers and remains the guiding light of space initiatives.

Eileen Galloway, often called "the grand matriarch of space law," played a role in the construction of that treaty. She has been involved with the development of space legal codes since the day after Sputnik went up, Oct. 4, 1957, when Congress turned to her to begin to draft laws for what, till then, had still been the imaginary future.

"When we came together to begin drafting space law, it was somewhat unbelievable," Dr. Galloway remembers.

"There was a convergence of scientists and engineers and government people and the United Nations. Forces all came together to make sure that space was used for peaceful uses, and for the benefit of all mankind."

A few of those same forces also pitched into debates over asteroid ownership and guidelines for approaching extraterrestrials that earned space lawyers a moment in the spotlight - but also a reputation for quirkiness.

Once the dust settled off the moon boots, however, the war in Vietnam and other events turned the public attention back to more earthly matters.

"Space law became what it did because Sputnik went up and all of a sudden there were no rules for the game we found ourselves in," says Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, professor of space law at the University of Mississippi and director of the National Remote Sensing and Space Law Center. "For a long time there were no credible activities that forced the issue of space law forwards."

But with President Bush's announcement earlier this year that he intends to increase privatization in the space industry and send astronauts to Mars, space law is again becoming a topic of concern.

In fact, "space law has really reached its most exciting time just in the past decade," says Dr. Ospina.

Perhaps the single most important issue in space law - ownership - has already been the focal point of space lawyers for some decades. In 1979 they attempted to resolve the issue with the international Moon Treaty.