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University of Arizona's space law class finds little regulation in a rapidly changing field

Andrew Woods
University of Arizona
Andrew Woods

Two professors at the University of Arizona recently finished teaching a first-of-its kind class for the school: space law and policy. The instructors included professors of law and planetary sciences, and students learned about the major space treaties, as well as domestic laws and rules. There are a handful of universities that offer this kind of class, but not a lot.

Andrew Woods was the legal half of the teaching team. He’s a professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, where he directs the tech law program.

He says when he and his colleague started to plan the class, they weren’t sure there’d be enough demand. But, he says, there was a surprising amount of student interest — and he’s even gotten emails from students asking for the class to be taught again in a future semester.

Woods spoke with The Show more about the class and the field of space law in general, starting with how robust this area of law is overall.

Full interview

ANDREW WOODS: It is tiny. There are just a handful of law schools that have established space law programs, and those programs are, of course, quite small. But the field of space law is really — in terms of like, what is the actual law — it’s pretty small depending on what you’re looking at.

So if you look at it from the perspective of international law, there are five major treaties, all of which were passed during the Cold War. And then no treaties developed after that.

But then if you look at the domestic regulatory environment — like if you’re advising a company that’s doing satellite launches — there’s a whole lot of non-law but still legalistic regulations.

MARK BRODIE: It seems like there’s two maybe in some cases competing elements here in terms of, as you described, international law. What has to happen for domestic companies, at least in the U.S., to launch satellites or launch other craft? Are those in conflict with each other at any point? Do they generally seem to co-exist?

WOODS: There are ways in which they interact and maybe conflict a little bit, although more often I think you see domestic activity that is actually the U.S. trying to comply with its international obligations.

I’ll give you an example. So right after we landed on the moon — and of course our astronauts planted a big flag on the moon — Congress passed an act with no specific rules in it, but an act just to declare to the world that that was not a claim of territorial sovereignty. And that act, that passed Congress in furtherance of the Outer Space Treaty. So the first major international treaty says no country can claim the moon, for example, as its own sovereign territory.

And so there you have an example of domestic law that was developed in direct response to our international obligations under the treaty.

BRODIE: As more and more countries get into the field of space exploration and more and more commercial entities get into that field as well, is there talk of updating or adding on to those international treaties and documents that you described?

WOODS: There is an awful lot of talk. Whether that talk will lead to anything, I am not so optimistic.

BRODIE: What are some of the areas that really need to be addressed now? As we talked about, with more countries going into space, more commercial entities going into space and technology advancing to the point of doing things that we couldn’t necessarily do in the ’60s. What are some of the areas that are really ripe for somebody to try to resolve potential disputes?

WOODS: That’s a great question. There are a range of issues, but if I had to pick one, it would plainly be the disconnect between the treaties, which speak exclusively about national space activities, and the reality on the ground today, which is this huge commercial enterprise. The major treaties, which deal with the rules that govern countries operating in outer space, all of those rules apply only or almost exclusively to sovereign countries and don’t really contemplate private commercial space exploration and activity. And yet today, what we see happening is not the United States government doing so much more space stuff, but rather private: Blue Origin SpaceX. It’s huge, huge, growth in the private sector of space. And that area, it’s just not something that was contemplated when these treaties were drafted.

BRODIE: Where does the potential militarization of space fall into this? The U.S. now has a Space Force. Other countries presumably will or have similar kinds of military entities that are patrolling or doing something in space.

WOODS: Oh, yes. They are very active. Just to be clear, it’s not only the U.S. that has a Space Force, even if other countries haven’t officially declared it a new branch of their military. This is a very active area for military affairs.

And as we see in the war in Ukraine, it's absolutely vital. When you're talking about “Star Wars,” it’s not just that the military is contemplating military conflict in space. Although of course that’s true. But you see how much of domestic military, territorial military affairs are affected by nations’ capabilities in outer space.

The Ukraine example was discussed quite a bit this semester. So Russia invades Ukraine, and one of their first things, they try to basically disable communications within Ukraine. And that includes disabling access to satellites, communications satellites.

And the Ukrainian military was able, with the help of allies, to replicate a lot of the services that were disrupted by Russian military attack. But they were able to do so largely by reliance on private sector tools like Starlink.

And that is simply, just totally novel and something that the law doesn’t much contemplate. And that raises important questions like: Is this private company — SpaceX, that’s offering this internet service — what is their role and responsibility now under, let’s say, the laws of war? And from the perspective of Russia, what are the rules of engagement vis-a-vis this American company that is assisting the Ukrainian military? That’s the kind of stuff that just wasn’t contemplated by the treaty drafters in the ’60s and ’70s.

BRODIE: It seems like this is a situation that we hear a lot about, especially with new technology, that the policy just is not keeping up with the tech — that there’s things happening much more quickly than policymakers can really keep up with.

WOODS: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I came to this class not as an expert in space law. In fact, agreeing to teach the class was partly just to force myself to learn more about space law. But I really come to this as somebody who writes and thinks about the regulation of technology. And it was striking to me, to the point that you just raised, it was really striking how often space law issues sounded so similar to issues we’ve seen in cyberspace, the internet.

One of the things that happens in space law conversations is that people try to figure out what is the appropriate analogy to outer space. You’ll hear conversations where outer spaces an awful lot like the deep seas. It’s a global commons that is not owned by any one country, and everyone is operating there.

Other times people will say, “No no, outer space is more like the Arctic, where we have treaties and there’s lots of scientific exploration and rules about militarization, and nobody owns it.”

I actually think outer space is most similar to cyberspace, where you have effectively a global commons and an enormous amount of private investment and novel technologies and innovation. But also you have this sort of overlay of private innovation, private market activity with national security interests. And that raises just a host of interesting questions, especially for a lawyer, that we really haven’t dealt with yet.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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