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Space: The final frontier of law

“If we get it wrong up there, we will all literally be back in the Dark Ages.”  
 
That’s the ominous warning from one the world’s leading experts on space law and policy, Bond University Professorial Fellow and government-appointed member of the Australian Space Agency Advisory Board, Emeritus Professor Steven Freeland.  

Steven Freeland
Professorial Fellow, Steven Freeland

“Space law is a part of international law and governs space-related activities, including through domestic and international agreements, United Nations principles and rules and norms,” Professor Freeland said.  
  
“The rules relating to the governance of space will establish the way in which we might one day access the natural resources on asteroids and comets and other planets, and how we might establish human settlements on the Moon and elsewhere.  
 
“But it is so much more than this.  

“Space has become an important element of critical infrastructure to support the world economy, international trade and investment, strategic thinking, military strategy, national security, science and, frankly, the future of humankind.  

“A theoretical ‘day without space’ would be disastrous for lives, livelihoods, and economies around the globe. 

“We need to have a governance framework to properly regulate the way in which we all utilise and benefit from space.   

“Significant space powers like the USA, China, Russia, India, Japan and others are extremely active – and about 80-90 countries including Australia and Canada have some form of sovereign space capability.  
 
“However, the geopolitics of Earth are increasingly being ‘transported’ to space, which threatens the cooperative environment that is necessary if humanity is to continue to benefit from all that space technology can provide.  

“Our future depends upon the peaceful use of space to promote the safety, stability, security and sustainability of space.”

Professor Freeland said the origins of the law that applies ‘above our heads’ can be traced to 1919 and the implementation of international law recognising each country’s sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.  
The Soviet Union’s famous launch of the grapefruit-size Sputnik 1 in 1957, the world’s first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, spurred the United States Congress to pass the Space Act, the first act to slip the surly bonds of Earth, while at the same time creating NASA.  

Sputnik immediately highlighted the need for legal regulation of the exploration and use of outer space and that sovereignty had its limits – in essence, space is a global commons in which we all have a stake.  

In 1959, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPOUS) was established as the principal UN forum for considering space-related activities by countries and their private sectors.  

Professor Freeland has for many years been part of the Australian delegation to UNCOPUOS and, in 2021, was appointed to co-Chair of its Working Group (comprising 102 countries) on ‘Legal Aspects of Space resource Activities’. 

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, developed through UNCOPUOS, serves as the constitutional legal framework of space law. The foundational principles elaborated by the United Nations treaties are subscribed to by virtually every space-faring country.   
  
“In addition, especially with the increased number of commercial and private space operators, countries are adopting national space laws to regulate and oversee how all national space activities are to be conducted in accordance with international law,” Professor Freeland said.  
 
“We must ensure that every nation, large or small, adheres to the foundational principles, regardless of what happens down here – any other outcome would be a disaster. 

“One only needs to stop for a moment to think how much satellites are essential to our daily lives, how much we rely upon them to operate our mobile phones, to beam TV into our loungerooms, to undertake financial transactions, to gauge the weather, to run our transportation sewerage, communications and disaster management systems, amongst many other things, to understand how important space is.  
 
“As I often say – space touches every person on the planet – and we need to continually understand that the challenges to an orderly and peaceful space environment must be addressed.  
 
“The reality of space law is that if cooperation completely breaks down and the conflicts that are taking place here on the ground start to escalate significantly into the extra-terrestrial areas, the consequences would be too catastrophic to contemplate.”  

Steven Freeland will host a Professorial Lecture on Space Law at Bond University on 26 September. 

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