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.

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?

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.

The treaty established a clear prohibition on private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate, and designated extraterrestrial resources as "the common heritage of mankind." But the Moon Treaty has received far less support than the Outer Space Treaty - only five countries (none of them a major space power) have signed it: France, Guatemala, India, Peru, and Romania.

"The United States, along with the other major powers has not signed the Moon Treaty," says Prof. Gabrynowicz. Without the treaty there is no law excluding space ownership - a loophole some have sought to exploit.

In 1993 three Yemeni brothers filed suit against the United States for trespassing. The property in question? The planet Mars. The brothers claimed to have inherited the planet 3,000 years ago from their ancestors. The US sent attorneys to Yemen to fight the charges.

Though the case was ultimately dismissed, it raised issues over who could grant rights to property in space.

A US-based company called The Lunar Embassy claims it possesses a legal basis and copyright for the sale of lunar and other extraterrestrial property. Through its website, interested buyers can purchase one acre of lunar property for $49.99.

Three years ago dozens of Germans acted on an offer to buy real estate on the moon. Some of them are protesting US plans to build a lunar station on their property.

Most space lawyers, of course, say such claims are nonsense. "I can try selling you the Atlantic Ocean or the Brooklyn Bridge also, but I won't get very far," says Ospina. To prove this point, one space lawyer, Virgiliu Pop [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Virgiliu Pop.], has claimed ownership of the sun. Mr. Pop registered his claim over the sun on April 28, 2001, and declared himself not liable for any damage caused by his property.

His intent, he said in an interview with spacedaily.com, was "to show how ridiculous a property-rights system in outer space would be if it were based solely on claims unsubstantiated by any actual possession."

Yet at the same time an organization of French lawyers known as UNIDROIT is negotiating an agreement to secure transactions between debtors and creditors involved in financing satellites. Such an agreement - if internationally recognized - could set a precedent for the private sector in terms of claiming space.

But one of the stickiest issues in all of space law remains the definition of space itself.

"There is no real delineation or definition of outer space," explains Ospina. Some argue that outer space begins where airspace ends. But others point out that to escape the earth's gravity requires a voyage of 13 million miles - and suggest that outer space begins only there.

To help sort out the issue, there are dozens of space-law associations around the globe, and nearly a dozen universities that offer courses in the far-out specialty, attracting students for a variety of reasons.

"Space law seemed a great way for me to get involved and create a niche in the broad field of international law," says Robert Kelly, a second-year space law student at the University of Mississippi.

"I was attracted to it because of the mystery and the romantic aspect of what I would be involved in," says Lori Moorman, also a student at the University of Mississippi.

For some, however, the greatest mystery is what, exactly, space law will accomplish.

That all depends on how rapidly and earnestly mankind continues its pursuit of outer space, say others. "Law is a product of the needs of a society," says Hank Greely, professor of law at Stanford University. "When space is not valued, there is not space law ... and 40 years ago space was not as accessible as it has become today."

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