On Monday, a privately funded space tourism endeavor reached a milestone.
After releasing from a carrier aircraft at a height of 48,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo powered its rocket engine, broke the sound barrier, reached a speed of Mach 1.2, climbed to 55,000 feet and then landed safely.
By the end of the year, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is expected to attempt to fly into space. If all goes well, the 560 people who have agreed to pay $200,000 each to take a brief flight into space will get their chance to board the six-passenger spaceship in the coming years.
For many, the approaching dawn of space travel is an awe-inspiring achievement. For a small group of people convening in Lincoln Thursday, it’s law-inspiring too.
The legal impact of lower-cost access to space is one of five topics up for discussion and debate at the seventh-annual Lincoln Space and Cyber Law Conference. The event is hosted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s first-of-its-kind Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program.
At the conference, Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at UNL, said presenters will put the issues out there and look forward to an interesting discussion among students and other presenters with a high level of interest in the topics. Former UNL space law students have gone on to work for SpaceX, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and United States Cyber Command. Many of this year’s panelists are U.S. Strategic Command staffers.
Those who attend the conference debate the legal ramifications of topics that, to an outsider, might sound rather Bradburian. One year the conference focused on how best to destroy, or otherwise respond to, asteroids and other near-earth objects.
But each topic is of very real consequence, including, now, space travel. Though Virgin Galactic got the headlines this week, XCOR also is planning to send a ship into space early next year, von der Dunk said.
“So it’s certainly no longer science fiction,” he said.
Von der Dunk will be one of three panelists who will discuss the commercial space impact. He said the nascent nature of that industry is one of the reasons he and others are drawn to space law -- there’s more room for creativity than there would be in, say, criminal law.
With space tourism, von der Dunk said regulators are looking in part to legal issues that cover adventure tourism for guidance, since space travel is “basically a sophisticated bungee jump,” he said.
As of now, there isn’t much concern that some company will try to undercut the leading space tourism companies and provide space flights from a country with little or no regulation, since no one in his or her right mind would agree to pay someone heaps of money to fly 62 miles or so into the heavens in an untested experimental craft.
Along with commercial spaceflight, conference attendees this year will explore the legal ramifications of cyber attacks, radio frequency interferences and space debris.
There’s a lot of space debris -- USSTRATCOM tracks about 23,000 orbiting pieces of man-made junk that are each larger than a softball, said Matthew Schaefer, director of UNL’s Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program. He said China blew up an aging weather satellite in 2007 during a weapons test, causing it to splinter into about 2,500 pieces of space debris, he said.
There are almost as many legal hurdles to deal with when you begin to discuss how best to remove that debris from space, he said. Schaefer said it’s a highly specialized area of law, but it’s one that will continue to develop along with UNL’s space law program.
Recently, UNL hired Jack Beard from UCLA to teach international telecommunications, national security law, arms control, and international law courses, and Gus Herwitz to lead the telecommunications department beginning in the fall. They join the faculty as enrollment in the small program -- there are currently 12 students -- continues to grow, thanks to courses now being available for practicing attorneys interested in specializing in space and telecommunications law to take, naturally, online.