The Field of Space Law

by ursavoice


By Jenn Henry
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law
For Space Law Society


    When “space law” is first raised in conversation, some variation on the following question usually follows: “So what exactly is space law? Is that like … space [horizontal arm motions] or … space [vertical arm motions]?”

    A good answer is: both. Scholar Christy Collis at the Queensland University of Technology writes that we should think of outer space as an extension of Earth. Indeed, “space law” is “Earth law”: especially torts, contracts, international law, and administrative law. It involves state statutes passed in Virginia, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas to limit tort liability for spaceflight companies. It involves multimillion dollar contracts between companies like Space Systems/Loral and AsiaSat for construction of commercial telecommunications satellites. It involves the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, an international governmental forum, and the guidelines they publish covering “space trash.” It can involve statutes—although Newt Gingrich’s lunatic vow to build a Moon base seemed to come out of nowhere. Thirty years ago, he actually proposed legislation laying out procedures for space territories to apply for statehood in the ill-fated National Space and Aeronautics Policy Act (H.R. 4286) introduced in 1981. Space law can even involve property law: scholar Beth O’Leary at New Mexico State University has been spearheading efforts to extend legal historic preservation protections, which are largely state-based, to artifacts of the American space program left on the Moon.

    As a result, new lawyers have a wide variety of ways to practice space law, whether they are interested in practicing space law exclusively or not. Even summer and UCDC semester opportunities for 1Ls and 2Ls exist that revolve primarily around space law: legal interns work at federal agencies (NASA, the Federal Communications Commission, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Federal Aviation Administration) and private space companies (like SpaceX and Intelsat, especially good opportunities for law students with a strong background in engineering). BigLaw firm Jones Day boasts a growing space law practice area in its Washington, DC, office spearheaded by Senior Telecommunications Counsel Dr. Del Smith, a prominent figure in telecommunications law.

    There are also career opportunities in academics: the University of Mississippi has a space law program, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a space law LL.M. program, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has a dedicated institute for air and space law, and George Washington University has a Space Policy Institute. Georgetown University Law Center has also offered a space law seminar. As an academic project, space is a particularly interesting way to investigate issues with broader relevance, especially jurisdiction and the influence of private companies on the development of law.

    The Space Law Society’s mission is to examine the laws governing human activity in space. It seeks to familiarize students with this body of law through courses, events, and partnerships with outside organizations. In 2011, it partnered with the Prosperitas Idea Incubator at the Paul Merage School of Business to bring “Private Space Travel: The Next American Tech Boom—California’s New Industry?” to the law school, a panel of space travel innovators including George T. Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic, Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR, and Stuart Witt, the manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, where they shared their thoughts on the biggest legal hurdles to their development. The society hosted Professor Matthew Schaefer, Director of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Space and Telecom Law Program, to introduce space law issues to a group of UCI Law students, including commercial space travel liability laws and orbital debris issues. Finally, it organized an informal social outing for students to visit the Griffith Observatory last fall.

    If space law, space law job opportunities, or Space Law Society events sound interesting to you, please do not hesitate to contact Jenn ( or Brian ( to be added to the Space Law Society mailing list, or visit


Jenn Henry writes in the Space Law Society space this week, but the views expressed are her own.