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An Accident On The Moon, Young Lawyers To The Rescue

An annual space law moot court competition imagines a future legal case set in space, where issues of liability and sovereignty can get extra complicated.
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An annual space law moot court competition imagines a future legal case set in space, where issues of liability and sovereignty can get extra complicated.

When Alexia Boggs was applying to law school, she initially considered all the big specialties, but none of them seemed quite right.

"I was looking for a field of law where none of my family could ever seek my help," she says, sarcastic but also not really joking.

She found what she was looking for in space law, and enrolled at the University of Mississippi School of Law, one of the two big space and aeronautical law programs in the U.S. One way the students there learn to think about applying legal principles in space is to compete in the Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Competition.

"These competitions sort of imagine realistic problems that could happen in the future, and how liability is apportioned and decided and who's responsible," explains Boggs. "Here on earth, obviously, different countries have different laws about what happens if I crash into your car or if I ruin your fence," she explains. "Well, what happens if I do that to you in space?"

Boggs and her two teammates are the North American finalists for this year's competition, and next week they'll go up against teams from South Africa, Greece and India for the big prize.

Each team argues both sides of a case set in the future, in space. This year's case is, in the broadest terms, about a traffic accident on the moon.

In the case, "there are two countries, Perovsk and Titan," says Boggs. "They're bordering countries. They share a common language and a common history."

Both have space programs — in fact, they helped each other get to space, developing complimentary expertise in much the same way Russia and the U.S. work together to put astronauts in orbit. But the two countries have very different reasons for being in space. Titan is doing science experiments on the moon, while Perovsk starts a mining operation on the lunar surface.

The surface of the Moon as seen during the Apollo 17 mission. This year's international space law moot court competition case describes a hypothetical lunar legal dispute.
The surface of the Moon as seen during the Apollo 17 mission. This year's international space law moot court competition case describes a hypothetical lunar legal dispute.

Titan believes that Perovsk's mining operation is releasing pollution and contaminating experiments, so they send a rover to investigate.

"They collide," says Boggs. "Now everyone's upset."

Perovsk sues Titan over the damaged equipment in the International Court of Justice. Titan accuses Perovsk of breaking the law by polluting the moon. It's unclear who should pay for what, and why. Rovers don't carry insurance, and there's a larger question about who has the right to use, or pollute, the moon in the first place.

Boggs says the case exemplifies one of her favorite things about space law: it's ambiguous.

"It's sort of hard not to say anything controversial in space law because everyone has a different opinion about what space law should do," she explains. Space law is largely based on two treaties, the Outer Space Treatyand the moon Agreement, plus more general international law applied to space. But there's tension within the treaties about what space should be used for.

"Should it help us here on earth with resources and so we should be very industrial about space?" says Boggs. "Or should we be more romantic about space? [As in] 'we go and we share and we learn and we explore!' "

While the moot court case is hypothetical, the issues are relevant now. Commercial spaceflight is already happening, more countries are launching satellites and the spaceflight company SpaceX says it hopes to send people around the moon next year. Many students who participate in the competition go on to work for aerospace companies or agencies like NASA and its international counterparts.

Because space law is largely built on international law, such programs also attract a good number of future diplomats. Boggs would like to work with the U.S. State Department, although she's also interested in working on aerospace issues. Sharan Bhavnani, a member of India's moot court team from the National Law School India University Bangalore, says he specifically chose to participate in the competition because he thought it would be relevant to diplomatic work.

"Eventually I want to become a career diplomat for India, and I'm hoping that I could possibly be part of the negotiations for a new [space] treaty or resolution in the future," he says. "Space law has developed from the interaction of states."

Bhavnani says he expects Asia to have a growing influence in space in the coming years, and he would like to help shape how that influence is felt around the world.

"The space for developing countries is growing," he says. "There's India, China, Japan — all these are upcoming, and over the next decade or so, we will be major space powers."

Space law experts see an even more pressing need for updated laws governing commercial spaceflight. "I think there are going to be a lot more people traveling on private spacecraft than government spacecraft," says Andrea Harrington, a space law and liability expert, professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law and coach of the school's space law moot court team.

She says uncertainty about who is responsible for things that happen in, or on the way to, space could hold back the spaceflight business. "It's hard to get investors to want to put their money into an activity when it's unclear that that activity is still going to be legal, and is still going to be possible to license and partake in and move forward in the future," she says.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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