Looking to Launch a Career in Space Law? Nebraska Law is Here to Help
Space law. It’s a concept that, to some of us, sounds ripped out of the movie “Xenon, Girl of the 21st Century,” “Interstellar,” or possibly “Gravity.” But I want you to think back to the last time you used your smartphone as a GPS. How about the last time you flew on a plane? Or the last time you checked the weather for your area. Or the last time you streamed an episode of your favorite Netflix original show. All of those activities are in some way governed by space law, and how it intersects with the distinct but related fields of cyber and telecommunications law.
But what is space law, why does it matter, and how does it affect the education of law school students right now? Read on for an exploration of space law, the ways it affects us each day, and a look at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law’s innovative space, cyber, and telecommunications law program.
So, What is Space Law?
At its most basic, space law is the set of international and national laws that regulate what governments and private companies do in space. It also encompasses facets of international law and business law.
The need for “space law” arose when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in late 1957 and the U.S. completed its own satellite launch months later. After much negotiation, the Outer Space Treaty was concluded in 1967, laying out the basic tenants of space law that became the groundwork for the rest of the field. These principles fit a few themes–including freedom of exploration and use of space, that space is to be used for peaceful purposes, and (in a clear indication that these principles were designated during the Cold War) that “states shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.” Check out the rest of the principles here.
Things have obviously changed since 1967, so these ideas have been expanded upon and undergone new developments. The United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), which was a driving force behind the original Outer Space Treaty, has seen the development of four other treaties as well as developed five additional sets of principles.
But the creation of major new international rules have stalled the past several decades, while on the national level rule-making has accelerated. The U.S. enacted the first commercial space legislation in 1984 and continues to have the most detailed and advanced framework, including addressing topics such as commercial human space flight, liability for any third-party injuries, and asteroid mining. Many other nations have enacted legislation and look toward the U.S. framework as a model.
Why does any of this matter? After all–most of us aren’t launching space ships or trying to become astronauts. But these principles have allowed us to send up the satellites that we use for everything from satellite TV, navigation, banking, agriculture, and of course, military information. That’s where other aspects of law, like cyber law and telecommunications law come in.
Put simply, cyber law governs the use of computers and the internet. Current hot topics in cyber law include hacking, “the right to be forgotten,” and encryption. Cybercrime is also particularly pressing, whether the targets are private citizens or government entities.
Telecommunications law deals with broadcasting and electronic communication. In the United States, telecommunications laws and polices affect phone service, cable and TV programming, and wireless spectrum. Telecommunication law has seen significant evolution now that the internet has become so ubiquitous and will continue to change moving forward.
Why is it important to study all three?
Many of the issues covered by space, cyber, and telecommunications law see a significant amount of overlap. In fact, we couldn’t even talk about certain topics in cyber regulations and telecommunications–we wouldn’t even have access to much of this technology–without our exploration and use of space. According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln College of Law, the only school in the United States to offer a program that specifically teaches all three fields: “These three areas are intrinsically linked by the technology they require and the laws and policies that impact them.”
What’s Next in Space Law?
So, it’s clear space law, and the related fields of cyber and telecommunications law, affect each of our daily lives, in really commonplace ways. But a lot of the topics we’ve seen in the news lately also have the potential to be affected by these kinds of regulations.
Net neutrality–whether or not internet service providers should treat all content and sites the same–has increasingly become a hot button issue in recent years. Almost every 2016 candidate, from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump has at least mentioned where they stand on the topic.
Net neutrality is based on the idea of the internet as a commodity–some companies have access to it and they provide it to paying consumers. For now, it’s been a mostly earthbound commodity. While there have been dalliances with satellite internet, none have ended up particularly successful. But that’s probably going to change soon–last year companies like SpaceX and OneWeb both announced plans to create satellites that could deliver broadband. This transforms net neutrality from a grounded, national concept to an international dilemma. As Slate’s Nicholas Nardini put it:
A space-borne Internet could skirt these threats. It might also skirt law enforcement and surveillance: While tech companies today often dodge warrants by storing data in foreign countries, the lawless sky offers an even surer refuge. And though net neutrality is the law for now in Europe and the United States, it doesn’t really exist elsewhere. Any network offering satellite Internet to the developing world is likely to sacrifice neutrality for efficiency.
Commercial Space Flight
Commercial space flight may have sounded like a science fiction fantasy just a few years ago, but we’re inching ever closer to it becoming a reality. Bigelow Aerospace is trying to launch a few giant space habitats for some commercial use; it aims to launch the first in 2020. It could be used by both “space tourists” as well as for scientific research. Virgin Galactic is working on commercial human space flight, planning sub-orbital flights in the next year or so, and SpaceX and other companies contract on cargo carriage to the International Space Station and, in the near future, astronaut travel.
But if private citizens are going to start going into space, laws that had for so long mostly focused on governmental and military operations are going to need to be reexamined. Legal issues currently addressed in US legislation like licensing for private flights, who is liable in the case of injury, informed consent, and so many other questions are going to have to be dealt with in other national legislation as “space tourism” becomes more than just a fun idea globally.
So, how do I become a Space Lawyer?
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law has the only program in the United States that combines the fields of space law, cyber law, and telecommunications law. Since 2007, Nebraska has offered a Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law certificate for J.D. students. J.D. students can specialize in space, cyber and/or telecommunications law during their studies by taking 15 credit hours of courses in one or more of these areas in consultation with faculty in the area. Nebraska Law for the past decade has also offered an LL.M. in these areas of law, and more recently began offering a doctorate (J.S.D.) in space law.
Nebraska provides opportunities for students interested in space law to get hands on experience, through conferences in both Lincoln and Washington D.C. and participation in events such as the Lochs Moot Court competition. According to Professor Matthew Schaefer, the Director of Space, Cyber, and Telecom Law Program, Nebraska also has a notable list of alumni, who work at places like the U.S. State Department, relevant think tanks, SpaceX, McKinsey Consulting, and U.S. Cyber Command, to provide connections and inspiration to current and future students.
Space law isn’t just for people who are going to work specifically with commercial companies like SpaceX or government agencies. The interplay between space law, cyber law, and telecommunications affects business transactions and international law on the ground too. And firms increasingly have to rely on lawyers who have knowledge of cyber law, given that the internet is now wrapped up in essentially everything we do. As Professor Schaefer put it:
Even if you’re not going to go off and work for a space company, again, space law is a really good case study in international business transactions and global business, also an excellent case study in international law as well.
So, are you looking to pinpoint the future of law? Reaching for the stars doesn’t sound too crazy anymore.