The law schools at University of Nebraska — Lincoln (UNL) and the University of Mississippi will begin new programs in space law this fall.
As the space tourism market continues to grow, two universities have developed programs to prepare law students to expand their jurisdictions beyond the ozone.
The law schools at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) and the University of Mississippi will begin new programs in space law this fall, which will train students to deal with issues ranging from commercial space flight to asteroid mining.
The commercial space industry and outer space research are both growing. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 civilians registered to take sub-orbital space flights scheduled to begin in December. NASA recently announced plans to partner with 11 other international space agencies to conduct deep space exploration that could send astronauts as far as Mars.
“There are opportunities out there and there are many emerging space law issues that need to get answers,” says Jacqueline Serrao, the director of the master of laws program in Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law “The money is there. The infrastructure is there. Where are the laws?”
The two programs have different focuses but both tackle space law. Ole Miss is adding a master of law degree in space and aviation law. UNL is launching a doctoral-level program in space law. The university already offers a master of laws degree in space, cyber and telecommunications law.
While other schools have space law societies and classes, the two universities offer the only degree-bearing programs in space law in the U.S.
Students will study existing space regulations and international agreements on space exploration. Classes will examine issues ranging from determining liability in commercial space accidents to who can legally take resources from a planet or a moon.
Julie Jiru, a 2010 graduate of the UNL master of laws space law program, is now working as a contract attorney for SpaceX, a space transport company created by PayPal founder Elon Musk. NASA contracted SpaceX to help deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station. Jiru helps negotiate contracts between the two parties.
While Jiru said her knowledge in existing space law is helpful, what she loves most about the field is how space lawyers help create precedents and form policy in unexplored areas.
“It’s neat to be more on the cutting edge of law, instead of just to change something or reargue something that’s already been argued a hundred times before,” she says.
There are existing laws that govern space. The Outer Space Treaty signed by more than 100 countries prevents nations from bringing weapons of mass destruction into space and forbids governments from claiming sovereignty of celestial bodies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates commercial space transport and the Federal Communication Commission regulates space satellites.
But lack of case law means parts of these regulations have never been applied and there are still some gray areas, says Matthew Schaefer, director of the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications program at the UNL law school. For example, it’s not clear whether private companies can claim celestial bodies though governments cannot.
Students in the research-based space law doctoral program will also write a book regarding a legal issue in space. In this way, students will help develop the field of space law, Schaefer said.
State legislators have already begun passing laws to attract the lucrative commercial space industry. States, including Texas, Virginia and Florida, have all enacted legislation to protect space tourism companies from liability if passengers are hurt or killed in flight. California lawmakers are currently debating legislation that would extend protection to space manufacturing companies.
Jason Kemp, an Air Force veteran and current master of laws student at Ole Miss, says he joined the program in the hopes of one day working at the FAA to help form policy and practice both air and space law.
Kemp said the program’s focus in air and space law is practical — more developed legal codes surrounding aviation law can provide insight into space law, which is similar but occurs a few thousand feet higher.
With the growing commercial space market, Kemp says he could see a degree in space law become as common as the popular specialized tax law degree.
“It is a big thing,” he said. “It is really the new frontier of American law.”
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