The landing Thursday of the last NASA space shuttle will mark the beginning of U.S. dependence on foreign and private space flights to the International Space Station, cooperation that will need to be balanced by sensible regulation of spaceflight, a University of Nebraska law professor said Wednesday.
The University of Nebraska's Space and Telecom Law program is uniquely poised to benefit from efforts to develop those regulations, said Frans von der Dunk, professor of space, cyber and telecommunications law.
"I absolutely think it increases the need for space law experts as these developments bring both new players … and new issues, such as the flight of U.S. government payloads or astronauts on private vehicles both within the U.S. and outside, to the table," said von der Dunk, an internationally renowned space law expert.
The Space and Telecom Law program features a master of law degree focused on space and telecommunications law offered to law school graduates. It's considered the first degree of its kind in the United States.
Von der Dunk said the end of the space shuttle program would require international collaboration to keep watch over spaceflight as NASA becomes dependent on other countries' vehicles for manned spaceflights to the International Space Station.
While no superpower prefers to be dependent on another country in an area as crucial as space travel, the United States continues to lead the world in certain areas of space travel, he said.
"The U.S. has enough areas where it still leads the pack globally to make sure this dependency does not turn to a potential instrument of blackmailing," von der Dunk said.
He said international cooperation would be important for development of international law and regulation in the space sector. For his part, von der Dunk already has provided expertise to foreign governments, including Sweden, that are working to regulate impending private space missions.
He said the phasing out of the shuttle program has prompted private entrepreneurs to invest in commercial spaceflight. Those entrepreneurs are likely to benefit from having NASA as a client and being able to use government-made vehicles, von der Dunk said.
Some companies, such as SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., a space transport company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, are close to launching their first flights. Von der Dunk said the NU program already has one alum working for SpaceX.
He said graduates of the Space and Telecom Law program can offer expertise as the United States seeks to protect passengers of private space flights, while trying to avoid stifling the growing private space industry with over-regulation.
"We definitely focus on providing the students with insights not only in how the U.S. domestically handles space activities and spaceflights but also how it fits within the international legal framework," von der Dunk said.