Fly Me to the Moon: How Will International Law Cope with Commercial Space Tourism?

Article excerpt

The recent confirmation by National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists regarding the presence of substantial amounts of water on the Moon has further galvanised the aim of humankind to develop ever more ambitious plans for space travel. Central to this ongoing evolution is the development of technology capable of transporting large numbers of passengers into outer space as commercial space tourists. It is increasingly likely that, within the foreseeable future, space will no longer be the sole domain of professionally trained astronauts or the exceptionally wealthy. However, the prospects for both suborbital and orbital private human access to space give rise to some challenging legal and ethical questions and call into question the adequacy of existing international law instruments that are directed towards the regulation of the use and exploration of outer space. It is clear that the existing international legal regimes covering air and space activities are not well suited to large-scale commercial access to space, largely because they were developed at a time when such activities were not a principal consideration in the mind of the drafters. The lack of legal clarity must be addressed as soon as possible, to provide for appropriate standards that will further encourage such activities. This article examines some of the more pressing legal issues associated with the regulation of space transportation of passengers on a commercial basis, and offers some suggestions as to those areas where important principles need to be developed.

CONTENTS

I    Introduction
II   An Overview of the International Law of Outer Space
III  A (Brief) History of Space Tourism
IV   What Is 'Space Tourism'?
      A  Orbital Space Tourism
      B  Suborbital Space Tourism
      C  Intercontinental Rocket Transport
V    What International Law Applies to Space Tourism?
VI   What Is the Legal Status of a Space Tourist?
VII  What Are the Applicable Rules relating to Liability for Death
     /Damage?
VIII Does Space Tourism Assume the Need for 'Celestial Property
     Rights'?
IX   Ethical Considerations
      A  What Space Tourism Activities Are to Be Regarded as
         'Appropriate'?
      B  Pollution of the Environment of Outer Space
      C  Protection of 'Heritage Sites' in Outer Space
X    Concluding Remarks

I INTRODUCTION

On 18 June 2009, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration ('NASA') launched its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter ('LRO') and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite ('LCROSS') from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (1) Almost four months later, on 9 October 2009, the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V rocket carrying the probes deliberately slammed into the Cabeus Crater at the south pole of the Moon at approximately twice the speed of a bullet, (2) generating approximately 350 tonnes of debris that rose up to two kilometres from the surface. (3) Shortly afterwards, LCROSS followed the initial impact, analysing the debris that had been generated before itself also crashing into the lunar surface.

Despite some initial disappointment, NASA scientists examining the results subsequently declared this experiment to be a major success, explaining that they had found a 'significant amount' of water ice and water vapour in the plume that followed the first crash. Whilst there is still much work to be done to fully analyse the results of the experiment, this discovery has reignited speculation as to the possibility that humans will eventually return to the Moon and remain there for an extended period, utilising these deposits of water for consumption, conversion into breathable air, and even as a base from which to create rocket fuel for subsequent launches. Though it is not clear exactly when this might eventuate--a situation further complicated by US President Barack Obama's call in February to cancel the NASA program to send humans back to the Moon by 2020 (4)--it still seems probable that astronauts and other space travellers will eventually return to the Moon. …