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Review: Commercial Uses of Space and Space Tourism

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Commercial Uses of Space and Space Tourism: Legal and Policy Aspects
by Jan Wouters, Philip De Man, and Rik Hansen (editors)
Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017
hardcover, 328 pp.
ISBN 978-1-78536-106-7

The regulation of space activities, particularly commercial ones, is clearly in a phase of transition at national and international levels. Last month, the US National Space Council approved a series of regulations intended to streamline commercial space regulations in the country. “My slogan is, the rate of regulatory change must accelerate until it can match the rate of technological change,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who will oversee much of that work, in a recent interview.

Earlier last month, a working group the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) finalized a set of guidelines regarding the long-term sustainability of space. Among the guidelines are those that call for increased “trackability” of small satellites and prompt disposal of such satellites from key orbits after the end of their lifetimes, issues that are becoming a growing concern as the numbers of such satellites increase.

“The guidelines discussed by the working group recognize the fragility of the space environment and the current and future threats that need to be addressed if we are to ensure that space can be effectively used in the future,” David Kendall, chairman of COPUOS, said at a conference last month.

Reading Commercial Uses of Space and Space Tourism: Legal and Policy Aspects, a collection of papers by space law academics and practitioners, it’s clear that there remains plenty of uncertainty about how to deal with new space companies and space applications. A legal framework established a half-century ago, when space was the purview of a handful of governments, is struggling to deal with how to deal with much larger number of countries and companies operating in space today.

One author recommends a temporary moratorium on LEO satellite constellations “at least until much-needed technological capabilities and more detailed environmental impact assessments coalesce” to address debris concerns.

That is not necessarily the explicit or intended theme of the book, but it’s one that emerges from many of its chapters. One chapter discussing the difficulties of the concept of the “launching state” in today’s environment, including how to determine liability. “The system may have to evolve,” the author concludes, while “maintaining a strong, efficient and fair mechanism of liability.” Another chapter ponders who is considered an “astronaut” for purposes of the Outer Space Treaty and a separate “return and rescue” agreement. The author argues that, under the interpretation of the “ordinary meaning” of the term at the time the treaty was enacted, it would include anyone in a spacecraft, including both professionals and space tourists.

Some want to slow down commercial initiatives because of concerns about the ability of existing treaties and agreements to deal with them. Ward Munters, in a lengthy discussion about low Earth orbit satellite constellations, argues that treaties don’t provide protection for the “space environment” from defunct satellites and other debris from such systems. Munters recommends a temporary moratorium on such systems “at least until much-needed technological capabilities and more detailed environmental impact assessments coalesce” to address those concerns. (That, for now, seems unlikely based on the lack of opposition at the national level to satellite constellations under development by companies in the United States and elsewhere.)

As the title suggests, one area of emphasis in this book involves legal issues associated with space tourism, a field that sparked national legislative action, particularly in the United States, in the early 2000s but has yet to take off as an industry. Chapters in the book deal with US and UK regulatory activities that include commercial human spaceflight. Another chapter by an official with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) makes the argument that suborbital spaceplanes should be regulated as aircraft and not launch vehicles—the opposite approach to the US. (It also leaves open the possibility of different regulatory regimes for suborbital vehicles that have wings and take off and land on runways, versus those that offer a similar suborbital spaceflight experience but launch and land vertically.) For now, it’s a moot point since EASA is not pursuing that regulatory approach at the moment, and there’s little urgency to do so given the slow development of such suborbital vehicles.

Commercial Uses of Space and Space Tourism is a book primarily for those involved in legal and regulatory issues involving spaceflight, given the depth of its subject matter as well as its price. For those readers, this book will cover some familiar topics, but discuss them, and the challenges they pose for future commercial space activities, in great detail.