Today we’re going to talk about space laws.So back in ye old days property owners had the rights to their land going up foreverand ever in perpetuity but then the airplane came around and smart people realized thatyou couldn’t just go around asking every property owner for permission to fly throughtheir airspace so governments decided that they would own the air above a certain level.In general, governments decided that property owners owned their land up to 500 feet aboveground level, and then the air above that, going up infinitely, was to be owned and controlledby the government. This made life easier for airplanes, but then America invented space,and that made things a little more complicated.
In most cases satellites and spacecraft orbitaround the earth, so it would be a logistical nightmare to request permission to enter intothe airspace of each nation in an orbit. Once again, smart people got together and decidedthat those air rights that countries had given themselves should end at a certain level.Different countries say different things, but all of them agree that somewhere between19 miles above earth, the altitude of the highest airplanes and balloons, and 99 milesabove earth, the altitude of the lowest orbiting satellites, a country’s claim to sovereigntystops. So this begs the question, which laws apply in space?So let’s say that an astronaut commits a small crime while in space, like, I don’tknow, doing a line while on a spacecraft. This isn’t a huge crime against humanity,but they’re gonna have to be punished. If the astronaut had those happy times whileon the spacecraft of a specific country, it would be clear which country would prosecute.If it was in a Soyuz capsule, Russia would prosecute, if it was in a SpaceX capsule,the US would prosecute.
Much like with boats, the spacecraft is considered to be an extensionof the sovereignty of that country. But, let’s say Mr Astronaut did his line while on themoon, who would prosecute then? The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says that no countrycan claim a section of space or a celestial body as their territory, so this means thatno country’s laws apply universally on the moon. Well this is where the idea of extraterritorialjurisdiction comes into play. In almost every country, citizens are subject to the lawsof their own country even if they are outside of the country. This doesn’t apply whenthey are in other countries since the other country’s laws trump the extraterritorialjurisdiction, but when they aren’t in any country, these laws do apply. This means thattwo people in the exact same place can be subject to different laws. An 18 year oldBritish astronaut could technically drink on the moon while an 18 year old Americanastronaut could not.
Just to make things a little more complicated, the rules are differenton the International Space Station. The Space Station agreement, the document that outlinesthe rules of the ISS, says that in most cases, extraterritorial jurisdiction applies—eachastronaut is subject to the laws of their own country. However, if for example an Americanastronaut, say, punches a French one out of frustration, France would be allowed to prosecutethe American astronaut. The same rule applies with property—if a British astronaut smashesa Canadian’s astronauts computer, Canada could prosecute the Brit. In addition, thisagreement allows for extradition of astronauts in all cases, regardless if the two countrieshave a normal extradition treaty. This is actually pretty important, because Russiadoesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US. That means that Russia doesn’t haveto give up individuals who have committed a crime in which the US has the right to prosecute.In the case that a Russian commits a crime against an American on the ISS, however, Russiawould be obliged to extradite that astronaut. Another situation to look at is what wouldhappen if a baby was born in space. First off, this is a super-hypothetical becauseit’s unknown if its even possible for a baby to be born in zero gravity, and, if theywere, their bones would be so brittle that they would crush under their own weight ifthey returned to gravity. It’s unlikely that any country would allow for an astronautto have a baby in space because that would be, like, super un-ethical. But for the sakeof argument let’s say there was a space-baby, what nationality would that baby be? Thereactually is precedent for this question. 13 babies have been born in Antartica, wherethere is a similar treaty that disallows sovereignty.
While those babies were not born in theirparents’s countries, they took their parents nationalities. The same policy applies inspace. There are countries, however, that don’t give citizenship to babies born outsideof the country, so in that case, the baby would take the citizenship of the countryof the spacecraft they were born in. This is the same rule that applies when a babyis born on an airplane in flight, they take the nationality of their parents, and if that’snot possible they take the nationality of the country in which the aircraft is registered.And what happens if the baby is born on the Moon or Mars where there is no sovereignty?Well I don’t know man what do I look like a lawyer? But seriously, nobody really knows.This is just one of many flaws in current space law. Only 536 people have been to space,and all of them were highly trained and were representing their country. They just aren’tthe type of people to commit crimes.
As commercial space-flight and space tourism develop, allthese laws will need to be made more clear to prevent future problems. Gone is the erawhen these laws can just be figured out when and if the time comes. In the near futurewe could be seeing space-mining as well, and that will require economic laws and environmentaltreaties. The coming decades will be a fascinating time while we watch not only the developmentof commercial space industries, but also as we lay out the legal and political groundworkneeded for the opening of the final frontier.