Written by: Irram Khan
On September 27, 2016, Elon Musk, inventor and founder of SpaceX, revealed details on his plan to colonize Mars. This endeavor is more than just a savvy actualization of a 1960s sci-fi novel—it’s a significant advancement in human development and technology. The concept, however, is not new. According to National Geographic, the plan to conquer Mars has been in motion since at least the 1970s. Musk’s latest move is reviving mainstream interest in space. Even the Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, confidently declared at the most recent “What’s Next” innovation conference in Chicago, that Boeing will land the first person on Mars. Although the journey to Mars sounds exciting, space travel faces some very real developmental issues here on earth, from a legal standpoint. For young lawyers and law students, however, this may be good news.
A fundamental concern is the regulation of rocket development. In the article, Space Lawyers Set the Rules for the Final Frontier, author John Bonazzo points out that the primary concern is the scrutiny of rocket invention, especially since different stages of development are governed by different government entities. But this type of regulation is neither new, nor unexpected. Bonazzo explains that space travel has been regulated since at least 1959, and the United States—along with many other countries—recognizes the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The U.S. Department of State says the treaty was established long before space travel was actually achieved, as a way to prevent “a new form of colonial competition.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the economic prospects of sending humans to Mars seem to be great. Bonazzo includes commentary from space lawyer and founder of a nonprofit technology policy think tank, Berin Szoka, who believes mining the Moon for resources, for example, could be a viable and lucrative business of its own. The article also notes that space lawyer, James Dunston, even brokered a deal of the Mir Space Station to the Russians using a commercial building lease.
Whether it is a space race or a burgeoning commercial space flight industry, it appears that colonizing Mars intrinsically leads to an emphasis on technological advancement, competition, innovation, and employment. But regulation might be hindering this progress. James Dunston criticizes current U.S. regulation disharmony, commenting, “We’re on the precipice of a real revolution in launches, but we don’t have the launch infrastructure or regulatory environment to license all of them.” We really don’t know how close space travel is for the average human being, but with heightened world interest in Mars, we can expect an increase in legal work in the space law sector, and possibly regulatory change.