As Space Exploration Expands, So Will Space Law

17:29 minutes

Wooden justice gavel and block with brass
Credit: Shutterstock

Almost 70 years ago—in the middle of the Cold War—the United States and the Soviet Union kicked off the race to space, and that high-stakes sprint transformed humanity’s relationship with space forever. Ultimately the USSR launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and the U.S. put the first humans on the moon.

Now we’re in a different space race. But this time, there are a lot more contenders. There are more satellites in orbit than ever before, NASA is trying to put humans on Mars, countries are still sending landers to the moon, and billionaires are using rockets as tourist vehicles. All this activity raises some serious questions: Who is in charge of space? And who makes the rules?

Journalist Khari Johnson explored these questions in a recent feature for Wired magazine, featuring experts at the forefront of these issues. Guest host Sophie Bushwick is joined by two of them: Dr. Timiebi Aganaba, assistant professor of space and society at Arizona State University, and Dr. Danielle Wood, assistant professor and director of the Space Enabled Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They discuss the role of space lawyers, what cases they may argue, and how the rules of space—and the potential for conflicts—are evolving.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Timiebi Aganaba

Dr. Timiebi Aganaba is an assistant professor of Space and Society at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Danielle Wood

Dr. Danielle Wood is an assistant professor and director of the Space Enabled Research Group at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And I’m Sophie Bushwick. Almost 70 years ago in the middle of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union kicked off the race to space. The USSR launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik. The US put the first humans on the moon. High-stakes missions like these transformed our relationship with space forever.

Now, we’re in a different space race, but this time we have a lot more contenders. There are more satellites in orbit than ever before. NASA is trying to put humans on Mars. Countries and private companies are sending lots of landers to the moon, and billionaires are using rockets as tourist vehicles. All this activity raises questions. Who is in charge of space, and who makes the rules?

A story in WIRED magazine by journalist Khari Johnson explores these questions, and it features two scientists at the forefront of this field– Dr. Timiebi Aganaba, assistant professor of space and society at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, and Dr. Danielle Wood, assistant professor and director of the Space Enabled Research Group at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome to Science Friday.

DANIELLE WOOD: Thank you so much.

TIMIEBI AGANABA: Thanks so much.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Danielle, how did the first space laws come about?

DANIELLE WOOD: It’s a wonderful story to consider why we have space laws because at the time that the original treaties were debated, it was a period when things could have gone much worse. And we see countries responding to the realities of the Cold War by encouraging dialogue and forming a United Nations committee called the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

And they also saw the need to propose treaties– the first one being the Outer Space Treaty so that there would be an opportunity to define the principles that would govern space activity. This all happens in the years right after the first object by humans is launched into space. The Sputnik satellite is launched by the Soviet Union.

And many fears were raised at the time, but there’s also, I think, really smart diplomacy that happened, especially to highlight the need to avoid having nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction go into space. I often say it would be great to celebrate this long heritage that these early treaties helped us avoid nuclear war in space by putting right away into the treaties, one, that many countries and all countries deserve to have benefit from space, but also that we should focus on space for peaceful purposes and avoid weapons of mass destruction.

So the early treaties were signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. But soon after the committee that was forming the treaties often grew. Looking at the graph, you can see it going from like 20 countries in the beginning up to over 100 now.

And so countries from every region are a part of those committees now, and we have great representation from across the world. Every single continent is represented except for Antarctica in terms of countries that are joining and giving their views on space policy now.

And, Timiebi, what precedent do you think the Outer Space Treaty set?

TIMIEBI AGANABA: The Outer Space Treaty is a very interesting example of international lawmaking. And it’s a very unique one too because it happened very, very fast. And at the time that it was negotiated, there were only two countries that even had the capacity to utilize the space environment.

And if you look at trying to bring all these countries together to agree on a treaty like, today, it’s very, very difficult. So the speed in which they were able to do it was really interesting, but also demonstrates the players who were in the game at the time. So everything has kind of changed now.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And we’re talking about space lawyers. So what exactly does a space lawyer do? And what big questions are there for this person to think through?

TIMIEBI AGANABA: It really depends on what the person’s mandate is. So, for instance, if you work for the government, like, say the State Department, you would be, you know, negotiating agreements. You would be determining the boundaries of the projects that you want to do, et cetera. If you’re a contract lawyer, you will be able to help people develop the contracts for their satellite manufacturing or their launch services contracts. So there’s a variety of things that people do with respect to laws that facilitate space activities.

DANIELLE WOOD: One of the things that’s so helpful to think about when trying to define space law is the fact that space law, in many ways, happens at the national level, and it’s negotiated at the international level. So we can say that the United States has both ratified and signed the Outer Space Treaty, which means it’s also US law.

I think that’s really key to keeping track of what it means for international law to be binding. I think that’s key to saying space law is meaningful, especially because countries make it domestic law. And then the same types of legal activities that happen inside the country for other regimes can happen in space.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Where does the world stand on space law at this point? I mean, are there any big players or any nations that are dominating the conversation?

TIMIEBI AGANABA: Most people don’t know what space law is or that it even exists.



TIMIEBI AGANABA: Most of my time is just spent answering the question, so who’s your client? Aliens?


TIMIEBI AGANABA: The majority of people don’t even know that this is a topic or that this is an issue. So I don’t really think this question of dominance is the right way of asking the question. The right way of asking the question is now that we are seeing that we are going to space and we’re going to space to stay, it’s really evident that we’re going to need very robust systems of organizing different actors– being able to determine different competing interests.

So people are increasingly, all around the world, having to consider that as they think of real viable projects that they’re going to do. So I would say that we’re all pretty equally ignorant on this topic, and it’s anyone’s game to learn how to really navigate all these new players and new activities moving forward.

DANIELLE WOOD: In the next few years, I expect we’ll see a lot of novel missions that haven’t really been tried yet, such as having different satellites operating in space where one is owned by a company that’s helping to provide services, like fuel or repair, to a different company. So in some ways, what’s coming up next is new case studies or uses of the Outer Space Treaty that will help us expand our mutual interpretation across different countries of what the Outer Space Treaty means.

For example, there are calls for things like trying to not cause harm to other missions operated by other countries, and the idea that private entity is under the supervision and the authorization of the national government that authorized it. So what does it look like for a government to give permission to a private company to operate a space station and then ensure that company on the space station is always following these international laws? We haven’t tried that yet. So it’s a new opportunity to figure out how these laws play out.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And, Timiebi, your work has been fostering a generation of lawyers who are thinking about these issues in space, specifically from countries across Africa. Why is it so important to train lawyers from this region of the world?

TIMIEBI AGANABA: We have the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Competition, which is kind of the entryway for all space lawyers or people interested in space that are lawyers to get access to either the networks or the kind of issues and the kind of problems that could potentially arise in space. The moot courts– one of the most amazing things about it is that you get to argue in front of sitting judges of the International Court of Justice. You know, that is such an amazing thing for a young student to say that they’ve argued in front of ICJ judges.

I fell into this when I was a teaching assistant at the International Space University in France. It was the coach for a team of scientists and engineers that entered this competition, and then when I went to go do my master’s and PhD in Canada, I was able to participate as a student in the North American rounds.

And I just thought that it was so sad that there was no African round. So African students wouldn’t have had an opportunity or a way to get involved in this topic, so it was really doing the work to get an African regional round established. And, you know, years later– because that was 2011– I decided that we had to take it one step further.

So I set up the Space Governance Innovation Contest for African students. So for me, it’s just a case of giving people the opportunity to understand the kinds of problems and how they can contribute. It’s not so much that I was, like, OK, it has to be African students. But there was nothing set up for them. And that’s why that I set that up.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And this competition sounds really interesting. Can you give me an example of the type of case that might be argued there?

TIMIEBI AGANABA: Back in the day, there were a lot more far-future, hypothetical kind of questions. Today, you’re going to find that the questions are a lot more topical on what’s actually happening today. So, I think this year it’s about dark and quiet skies because of the issue of mega-constellation versus astronomers.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And, Danielle, do you have a perspective on that type of case– this idea of megaconstellations of all these satellites in the sky sort of creating all this light pollution and interfering with the views of humans and animals back on Earth?

DANIELLE WOOD: In the area where there’s a lot of constellations right now– we call it low Earth orbit– it’s about the area of– I’ll use kilometers because that’s what I’m used to thinking in– but say 400 kilometers up to like 2,000 kilometers, right in the area of, say, 500, 800 kilometers. It’s a very popular destination for some of these constellations, which means that particular range is very crowded.

And it’s real that the constellations that are bringing in these really important services to internet support, but they’re also becoming a concern for astronomers on the ground. Because they either are operating at radio frequency that affects, you know, what’s happening from the astronomy, or they are passing over, and there’s periods when the light from the sun reflects off the satellites, and they’re seen from the Earth. Now folks around the world are starting to see satellites more often compared to the past.

But I also want to add the idea that many Indigenous communities highly value seeing the night sky in its natural state for many reasons– practical reasons like navigation and cultural reasons like being able to connect with stories of their heritage. And we are indeed in danger of altering our human experience of the night sky in a way that on one hand violates and really doesn’t hold sacred some of the values of Indigenous communities.

But also it makes a shift that some people are making– not everyone is having a chance to kind of discuss or weigh in on. And I think many who value the natural state of the night sky– so it’s an important debate.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So how do we ensure that everyone has a right to space? Like the Outer Space Treaty says, that space is for everyone. How do we do that sustainably?

DANIELLE WOOD: I’m fortunate. I’m a Black American woman working at a university in Boston, but I also have a chance to collaborate with leaders who are often the first pioneers in their country for seeing how they want to use space at the local scale. For example, I’m lucky to work directly on a project with the Angolan National Space Program. And they wanted to work with me on using NASA satellite data to monitor drought.

Because I have experience working with NASA’s earth science team, I have access to some of the scientists who are really specialists in how to use microwave remote sensing to monitor the changes of the soil moisture due to rainfall, which could be flooding or lack of rain. And in this case, we’re trying to translate that scientific measurement into an information system to help guide the government on how they respond to drought.

This is a good example where the space agency is now– a connector between kind of unique space technology that is usually requiring a PhD-level training to use it, and bringing it to the benefit of the other agencies that are really focused on drought– for example, those that are doing emergency response. These are great examples where people who believe in space technology and know its potential are trying to bridge it locally into things that matter a lot to the economic and social well-being of the country through practical areas that are really important to them.

TIMIEBI AGANABA: And I think Danielle made a really good point here that we need to really distinguish between capacity building, which what everyone is obsessed with talking about– you know, developing countries and all these people– that we have to build that capacity and giving people an opportunity to demonstrate their capability.

For instance, you know, sure. You don’t have a rocket. But what we’re talking about today is that– well, what actually do you have? So like a country like Nigeria– amazing in Afrobeats, right? We’re really good at music. We’re really good at social and cultural things.

So how do you leverage the capacities that you already have and figure out how they play into space? This is what we’re talking about when we say local economic development rather than always being seen as well, we have to build your capacity. You don’t have a rocket. You don’t have this.

So I think that’s the reframing that I’ve really learned from– you know, really studying these ideas of multi-level governance and seeing how do you play in using your strengths as the entryway and then developing, your limitations and weakness rather than developing countries being brought into the conversation always from the perspective of we have to help you develop your capacity.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Talking about space exploitation and these issues of power and precedent brings up the question of colonization. Are we seeing parallels between the countries that are colonizing space and the countries with a history of colonizing other nations here on Earth?

DANIELLE WOOD: So certainly the idea of what it means for claiming territory kind of beyond one’s own nearby borders is alive and well. And we do see certain patterns in the space context. We see the pattern that there are those that are very active space countries, but they also want to use some of the land of other neighboring or distant locations because they find a geographic benefit.

And an interesting story I consider is the experience of Kenya. They are on the equator. There’s many benefits to doing space operations on the equator. And I’ve observed that in the past, both Italy but also the US have had activities related to launch off the coast of Kenya. And I often ask the question, when will it be that countries like Kenya are fully operating their own geographically beneficial sites rather than sort of partnering with countries that have– one might argue they have more experience?

But more and more, I see so many technical leaders in places all around Africa. I see that there’s an opportunity for countries that in the past were heavily colonized to stand on their own technical leadership and partner on an equal basis with other countries rather than on sort of a host basis.

I also am a space advisor to the country of Bermuda. They’re a small island, and they’re very proud that they partner with both the United States and with Europe to be a tracking location. And they take a lot of benefit, and they find it to be a benefit to their country to be a host with these partners. And it helps them to inspire their own youth and their own sense of being part of the space program.

So I think that’s an interesting contrast, where Bermuda says, look. We are so excited to use our unique location in the Atlantic Ocean to be a tracking site and to have multiple countries working with us, and part of their space strategy is to maintain that activity and to use it to spur their own local development in space. So there’s different ways you can partner, but the key thing is to have the power be on equal footing on both sides.

And I am concerned that players who move first in locations beyond the Earth, especially on the moon, are likely to act in a colonial way. And when I say colonial, I mean to behave in a way that’s allowable because one is first and one has certain technological and maybe military power rather than acting in a way that considers the connection between all the players that really have the right to be there.

So I do think it’s important that we have dialogue, and the place it really happens is this committee called the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in the United Nations. And the good news is there are countries from every region in that committee. And they are all having the same level of influence in terms of how they can come to agreement because it has to be done by consensus.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’d love to hear from both of you about what the next era of space exploration looks like to you.

DANIELLE WOOD: I want everyone to pay attention because I think that right now, 2024, is a key transition in the experience of how humans relate to space. Meaning, we’re in a period where the technologies that many have dreamed about– we’re starting to see that becoming true. And this means to me that we must all pay attention because we’re going to have long-term consequences.

The examples of kind of who’s involved and who goes there first will start to lay precedents. And similarly with activities that happen in orbit– and these are exciting– but it also means that whatever we do now, our children’s children will have to see the results. So I encourage us to be very thoughtful, but also to be very optimistic.

TIMIEBI AGANABA: Where I see the future going is a lot of hard work in understanding what are we even talking about when we talk about activities like space exploitation, how are our values aligned in all those things, given the experience from climate change, which is that perpetual growth is unsustainable. Then, the language of the space industry that’s completely focused on the growth of the space economy is already going down a bad line.

Rather, I would propose that we focus on economic development, socio-economic development as the foundation and the basis for any kind of growth that we want to do. So that’s my goal moving forward.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you both for joining me.

DANIELLE WOOD: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

TIMIEBI AGANABA: Thank you so much.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Dr. Timiebi Aganaba is an assistant professor of space and society at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. And Dr. Danielle Wood is an assistant professor and director of the Space Enabled Research Group at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2023 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Explore More