Contributions

Caveat Utilitor: A Tort Regime for Outer Space

By Jason A. Driscoll1

Is dam­age to a lunar min­ing facil­i­ty action­able under the Out­er Space Treaty when the facil­i­ty is built on the sur­face of the Moon and made entire­ly from lunar rock? In this Con­tri­bu­tion, Jason A. Driscoll (’18) ana­lyzes a wrin­kle in the law of out­er space, con­tem­plat­ing whether the cur­rent out­er space tort regime pro­tects dam­age to prop­er­ty craft­ed entire­ly from mate­ri­als mined in out­er space. The Con­tri­bu­tion argues that the cur­rent regime does not pro­tect and can­not account for the unprece­dent­ed, though pos­si­ble, prac­tice of man­u­fac­tur­ing objects in out­er space using extrater­res­tri­al mate­ri­als.

* * * * *

            In 1967, the Unit­ed States, the Sovi­et Union, and the Unit­ed King­dom draft­ed a frame­work mul­ti­lat­er­al treaty known as the Out­er Space Treaty.2 Despite its near-infi­nite juris­dic­tion, the Treaty estab­lished just sev­en­teen arti­cles reg­u­lat­ing the explo­ration and use of out­er space, focus­ing on first prin­ci­ples.3 For exam­ple, the Treaty pre­vents the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of space, man­dates coop­er­a­tion among nations in out­er space, and for­bids the sov­er­eign appro­pri­a­tion of the moon and oth­er celes­tial bod­ies.6 As of July 2017, 107 coun­tries are par­ties to the Out­er Space Treaty, and anoth­er 23 have signed the Treaty but have not yet com­plet­ed rat­i­fi­ca­tion.7

The Treaty also cre­at­ed a tort lia­bil­i­ty regime for sig­na­to­ry states. Arti­cle VII of the Treaty makes State Par­ties inter­na­tion­al­ly liable for dam­age they cause to anoth­er nation’s prop­er­ty.8 Adopt­ed against the back­drop of the 1960s space race, this arti­cle antic­i­pates dam­age stem­ming from col­li­sions and acci­dents involv­ing objects launched into out­er space. A more spe­cif­ic treaty called the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion fur­ther refined this regime. Signed in 1972, the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion estab­lish­es two tiers of lia­bil­i­ty. A launch­ing state is “absolute­ly liable” for dam­age caused by its space objects on Earth, but when dam­age occurs in out­er space a state is liable only if that dam­age is “due to its fault.”10 Through this two-tiered approach, the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion impos­es height­ened duties on nations dur­ing a launch and pro­vides a nation with a cause of action when injured in out­er space by anoth­er sig­na­to­ry state.

Prop­er­ty man­u­fac­tured from extrater­res­tri­al mate­r­i­al may fall out­side this two-tiered sys­tem. The fault-based regime gov­ern­ing dam­age in out­er space is lim­it­ed to dam­age sus­tained by a nation’s “space object[s].”11 This lim­i­ta­tion presents an intrigu­ing hur­dle to a new gen­er­a­tion of entre­pre­neurs seek­ing to make indus­tri­al use of space mate­ri­als. While recent polit­i­cal debate has focused on the legal­i­ty of pri­vate sec­tor space explo­ration alto­geth­er, a sec­ondary ques­tion involves whether prop­er­ty con­sti­tutes a “space object” pro­tect­ed by inter­na­tion­al law at all. The extent to which mate­ri­als mined in space—and objects man­u­fac­tured using such materials—are pro­tect­ed under the Lia­bil­i­ty Convention’s tort regime remains an open ques­tion.

While no nation has yet man­u­fac­tured objects exclu­sive­ly out of extrater­res­tri­al resources, the basic idea is close to being test­ed. In fact, NASA has already paired with pri­vate sec­tor part­ners to uti­lize 3D print­ing tech­nol­o­gy in out­er space.13 Recent­ly, NASA uti­lized this tech­nol­o­gy to print a wrench on the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion.14 Cur­rent plans con­tem­plate pro­duc­ing entire satel­lites or facil­i­ties in out­er space using indige­nous mate­ri­als.15 More impor­tant­ly, com­pa­nies are begin­ning to see poten­tial in com­mer­cial man­u­fac­tur­ing using out­er space mate­r­i­al.16 Gov­ern­ments are already leg­is­lat­ing to accom­mo­date these pri­vate sec­tor goals. In 2015, the Unit­ed States passed leg­is­la­tion legal­iz­ing com­mer­cial min­ing in out­er space, pre­scrib­ing a frame­work for com­pa­nies seek­ing to obtain own­er­ship over out­er space resources.17 Lux­em­bourg recent­ly passed sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion.18 How­ev­er, unless and until the out­er space treaties are refined with an eye toward the 21st Cen­tu­ry, it is unclear what lia­bil­i­ty or pro­tec­tion is afford­ed to par­ties seek­ing to engage in these prac­tices.

The text and his­to­ry of the term “space object” sug­gest that a “space object” is an object launched by a State Par­ty into out­er space from Earth.19 Prop­er­ty con­struct­ed entire­ly in out­er space using space mate­ri­als was nev­er launched, so it is there­fore not pro­tect­ed by the cur­rent Lia­bil­i­ty Convention’s tort regime. If this read­ing is cor­rect, Arti­cle III of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion fails to account for an impor­tant cat­e­go­ry of prop­er­ty, giv­en the grow­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty of bring­ing com­mer­cial and nation­al man­u­fac­tur­ing into out­er space. This lim­it­ed read­ing of “space object” finds sup­port in tra­di­tion­al prin­ci­ples of statu­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tion and the his­tor­i­cal uses of the term. This gap mud­dies inter­na­tion­al space law and could impede nations and pri­vate enti­ties from invest­ing in oth­er­wise ben­e­fi­cial uses of out­er space resources.

* * * * *

            The plain text of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion sup­ports a lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of tort lia­bil­i­ty in out­er space. Arti­cle III clear­ly lim­its its pro­tec­tion to cer­tain class­es of prop­er­ty:

In the event of dam­age being caused else­where than on the sur­face of the earth to a space object of one launch­ing State or to per­sons or prop­er­ty on board such a space object by a space object of anoth­er launch­ing State, the lat­ter shall be liable only if the dam­age is due to its fault .…20

Two lim­it­ing prin­ci­ples appear in Arti­cle III. First, action­able dam­age is lim­it­ed to dam­age sus­tained by a “space object.”21 While the term “space object” is nev­er defined in the treaties gov­ern­ing out­er space, the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion states that “[t]he term ‘space object’ includes com­po­nent parts of a space object as well as its launch vehi­cle and parts there­of.”22 Apply­ing the last antecedent rule of statu­to­ry con­struc­tion to the “its” in “its launch vehi­cle” sug­gests that space objects are objects that were actu­al­ly launched into out­er space.23

Sec­ond, the dam­aged prop­er­ty must be the space object “of [a] launch­ing State.”24 Thus, a “space object,” as nar­rowed by this adjec­tive prepo­si­tion­al phrase, must have a “launch­ing State,” which lim­its Arti­cle III’s pro­tec­tions to those objects actu­al­ly launched from Earth. To ful­ly under­stand the treaties’ con­cept of a “launch­ing State,” one must look to the Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion, which gov­erns launch­es.

The Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion was pro­mul­gat­ed in 1974 to clar­i­fy own­er­ship of objects launched into out­er space.25 Arti­cle II of the Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion man­dates that States reg­is­ter any object launched into Earth orbit or beyond.26 The Con­ven­tion also requires states to pro­vide a descrip­tion of the object, its launch details, and its gen­er­al func­tion.27 Pur­suant to the Con­ven­tion, State Par­ties to the treaty and the Unit­ed Nations must main­tain nation­al and inter­na­tion­al reg­istries in order to cen­tral­ize prop­er­ty man­age­ment in out­er space and assign respon­si­bil­i­ty for space objects.28

The mean­ing of “launch­ing State” is also nar­row, fur­ther indi­cat­ing a more lim­it­ed notion of tort lia­bil­i­ty in the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion. Arti­cle I of the Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion defines “launch­ing State” as “(i) A State which launch­es or pro­cures the launch­ing of a space object; [or] (ii) A State from whose ter­ri­to­ry or facil­i­ty a space object is launched.”29 Because a launch­ing State must launch or pro­cure the launch of an object to become a launch­ing State, a State does not clear­ly become respon­si­ble for an object until the object is involved in a launch and sub­ject to reg­is­tra­tion. There­fore, Arti­cle III of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion should be read to pro­tect only those objects launched into out­er space from Earth and not those man­u­fac­tured in out­er space out of indige­nous resources. As a corol­lary, prop­er­ty that is prop­er­ly launched and reg­is­tered under the Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion should enjoy a strong pre­sump­tion of pro­tec­tion under Arti­cle III of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion.31

Oth­er prin­ci­ples in the Out­er Space Treaty make this inter­pre­ta­tion the pre­ferred result. Allow­ing States to claim dam­age to prop­er­ty man­u­fac­tured out of out­er space resources would vio­late the non-appro­pri­a­tion prin­ci­ple embraced by the out­er space treaties. Arti­cle II of the Treaty con­tains the most promi­nent artic­u­la­tion of the non-appro­pri­a­tion prin­ci­ple, pre­vent­ing nations from claim­ing sov­er­eign­ty over the com­mons in space:

Out­er space, includ­ing the moon and oth­er celes­tial bod­ies, is not sub­ject to nation­al appro­pri­a­tion by claim of sov­er­eign­ty, by means of use or occu­pa­tion, or by any oth­er means.32

The prac­tice of min­ing celes­tial bod­ies for man­u­fac­tur­ing pur­pos­es would like­ly con­sti­tute a direct vio­la­tion of Arti­cle II’s non-appro­pri­a­tion prin­ci­ple, espe­cial­ly if done by a state.33 Allow­ing coun­tries to then pur­sue tort lia­bil­i­ty for dam­age to such prop­er­ty would under­mine com­pli­ance with and enforce­ment of Arti­cle II. Such a pro­tec­tion would clash with the spir­it of the Out­er Space Treaty, which for­bids uni­lat­er­al use of out­er space resources.34

The his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing of the term “space object” and the Out­er Space Treaty draft­ing his­to­ry like­wise sup­port a more lim­it­ed read­ing of Arti­cle III. Even pri­or to the pro­mul­ga­tion of the space law treaties, the Con­ven­tion for the Estab­lish­ment of a Euro­pean Orga­ni­za­tion for the Devel­op­ment and Con­struc­tion of Space Vehi­cle Launch­ers (ELDO) defined a “space vehi­cle” as “a vehi­cle designed to be placed in orbit as a satel­lite of the Earth or of anoth­er heav­en­ly body, or to be caused to tra­verse some oth­er path in space .…”35 Sim­i­lar­ly, in the 1963 Dec­la­ra­tion of Legal Prin­ci­ples, which served as the pre­cur­sor to the 1967 Out­er Space Treaty, “space object” was referred to as an “object launched into out­er space.”36 When draft­ing the 1967 Out­er Space Treaty against this back­drop, the Treaty allud­ed to a “space object” as “an object launched into out­er space,” includ­ing “objects land­ed or con­struct­ed on a celes­tial body.”37 Last­ly, when defin­ing “space vehi­cle” in the 1980 NASA Autho­riza­tion Act, the Unit­ed States used the fol­low­ing def­i­n­i­tion: “an object intend­ed for launch, launched or assem­bled in out­er space, includ­ing the Space Shut­tle and oth­er com­po­nents of a space trans­porta­tion sys­tem .…”38 Leg­is­la­tion intro­duced before the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in ear­ly 2017 main­tains these lim­i­ta­tions.39 This his­to­ry sug­gests that prop­er­ty man­u­fac­tured in out­er space out of out­er space mate­ri­als does not enjoy the sta­tus of a “space object” and is there­fore not pro­tect­ed under Arti­cle III of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion.

* * * * *

            The age of out­er space man­u­fac­tur­ing is just on the hori­zon and rapid­ly devel­op­ing. In con­trast, the inter­na­tion­al legal frame­work gov­ern­ing out­er space activ­i­ty is now fifty years old and out­dat­ed. This alone presents a caveat util­i­tor regime for any­one seek­ing to make indus­tri­al use of out­er space. Pre­sent­ed above, the lim­it­ed read­ing of the term “space object” in Arti­cle III of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion threat­ens the idea that a cause of action will lie in an out­er space man­u­fac­tur­ing envi­ron­ment. While this nar­row read­ing finds sup­port in tra­di­tion­al prin­ci­ples of statu­to­ry inter­pre­ta­tion and the his­tor­i­cal uses of the term, the read­ing will be test­ed against a new gen­er­a­tion of pio­neers. If “per­mis­sion­less inno­va­tion”40 tru­ly is the order of the day, then the text of the Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion must yield, and the tort regime in out­er space must pro­tect invest­ments that make use of out­er space’s indige­nous resources.


Rec­om­mend­ed Cita­tion: Jason A. Driscoll, Caveat Util­i­tor: A Tort Regime for Out­er Space, 2018 N.Y.U. Pro­ceed­ings 2, http://proceedings.nyumootcourt.org/2018/01/caveat-utilitor-a-tort-regime-for-outer-space/.

Notes:

1. Jason A. Driscoll is a 3L at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law. This piece is a com­men­tary on the 2017 Prob­lem at the Man­fred Lachs Space Law Moot Court Com­pe­ti­tion host­ed at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty Law Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton D.C. The prob­lem dealt with a poten­tial tort stem­ming from a col­li­sion between a rover and a min­ing facil­i­ty on the sur­face of the Moon. The views expressed in this arti­cle do not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the author on this point of law. Rather, this arti­cle is a dis­til­la­tion of one side of an argu­ment addressed at the Man­fred Lachs Com­pe­ti­tion.
2. See Treaty on Prin­ci­ples Gov­ern­ing the Activ­i­ties of States in the Explo­ration and Use of Out­er Space, includ­ing the Moon and Oth­er Celes­tial Bod­ies, Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, T.I.A.S. No. 6247 [here­inafter “Out­er Space Treaty”].
3. See id.
4. See id. at art. IV.
5. See id. at art. III.
6. See id. at art. II.
7. Sta­tus of Inter­na­tion­al Agree­ments relat­ing to Activ­i­ties in Out­er Space, Unit­ed Nations Office for Out­er Space Affairs (July 2017), http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/status/index.html.
8. See id. at art. VII.
9. Con­ven­tion on Inter­na­tion­al Lia­bil­i­ty for Dam­age Caused by Space Objects of March 29, 1972, art. II, entered into force Sept. 1, 1972, 10 I.L.M. 965 [here­inafter “Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion”].
10. Id. at art. III.
11. Id.
12. See Amer­i­can Space Com­merce Free Enter­prise Act of 2017, H.R. 2809, 115th Cong. § 80101(11) (2017) (intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion seek­ing to expand pri­vate enter­prise in out­er space); U.S. Com­mer­cial Space Launch Com­pet­i­tive­ness Act, Pub. L. No. 114–90, 129 Stat. 704 (2015) (“A Unit­ed States cit­i­zen engaged in com­mer­cial recov­ery of an aster­oid resource or a space resource under this chap­ter shall be enti­tled to any aster­oid resource or space resource obtained, includ­ing to pos­sess, own, trans­port, use, and sell the aster­oid resource or space resource obtained in accor­dance with applic­a­ble law, includ­ing the inter­na­tion­al oblig­a­tions of the Unit­ed States.”); see also Ken­neth Chang, If No One Owns the Moon, Can Any­one Make Mon­ey Up There? N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2017, at D1, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/26/science/moon-express-outer-space-treaty.html.
13. See NASA Com­pletes Test­ing on 3-D Print­er, NASA (June 24, 2014), https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/news/releases/2014/14–105.html
14. See Space Sta­tion 3-D Print­er Builds Ratch­et Wrench To Com­plete First Phase Of Oper­a­tions, NASA (Dec. 22, 2014), https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/3Dratchet_wrench.
15. See, e.g., Mol­ly Porter, NASA Opens $2 Mil­lion Third Phase of 3D-Print­ed Habi­tat Com­pe­ti­tion, NASA (Nov. 7, 2017), https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/centennial_challenges/3DPHab/nasa-opens-2M-third-phase-of-3d-printed-habitat-competition; Arjun Kharpal, Com­ing Soon: 3D Print­ing Satel­lites in Out­er Space, CNBC (July 12, 2016), https://www.cnbc.com/2016/07/12/coming-soon-3d-printing-satellites-in-outer-space.html.
16. See, e.g., Ken­neth Chang, supra note 11; Dan Tynan, Galac­tic Gold Rush: the Tech Com­pa­nies Aim­ing to Make Space Min­ing a Real­i­ty, The Guardian (Dec. 6, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/06/space-mining-moon-asteroids-tech-companies; Andrew Mose­men, Moon-Rock Bricks Could Build Lunar Bases and Set­tle­ments, Pop­u­lar Mechan­ics (Sept. 30, 2009), http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a3937/4298478/.
17. See U.S. Com­mer­cial Space Launch Com­pet­i­tive­ness Act, Pub. L. No. 114–90, 129 State 704 (2015) (“A Unit­ed States cit­i­zen engaged in com­mer­cial recov­ery of an aster­oid resource or a space resource under this chap­ter shall be enti­tled to any aster­oid resource or space resource obtained, includ­ing to pos­sess, own, trans­port, use, and sell the aster­oid resource or space resource obtained in accor­dance with applic­a­ble law, includ­ing the inter­na­tion­al oblig­a­tions of the Unit­ed States.”).
18. See A Legal Frame­work for Space Explo­ration, Min­istry of the Econ., Lux. (July 13, 2017), http://www.luxembourg.public.lu/en/actualites/2017/07/21-spaceresources/index.html.
19. See H.A. Bak­er, Lia­bil­i­ty for Dam­age Caused in Out­er Space by Space Refuse, 12 Ann. Air & Sp. L. 183 at 225 (1988). H.A. Bak­er pos­tu­lates that a “space object” means:

  1. any object

(a)  intend­ed for launch, whether or not into orbit or beyond;

(b)  launched, whether or not into orbit or beyond; or

©  any instru­men­tal­i­ty used as a means of deliv­ery of any object as defined [here­in]; and

  1. Includes

(a)  any part there­of or

(b)  any object on board which becomes detached, eject­ed, emit­ted, launched or thrown, either inten­tion­al­ly or unin­ten­tion­al­ly, from the moment of igni­tion of the first-stage boost­ers.

20. Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion, supra note 9, at art. III (empha­sis added).
21. Id.
22. Id. at art. I(d).
23. See gen­er­al­ly Lock­hart v. Unit­ed States 136 S. Ct. 958 (2016) (con­sid­er­ing appli­ca­tion of the last antecedent rule).
24. Id.
25. See Con­ven­tion on Reg­is­tra­tion of Objects Launched into Out­er Space, Sept. 15, 1976, 1023 U.N.T.S. 15 [here­inafter “Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion”].
26. See id. at art. II.
27. See id. at art. IV.
28. See id. at art. II.
29. Id. at art. I.
30. Id. (“(a) The term “launch­ing State” means: (i) A State which launch­es or pro­cures the launch­ing of a space object; (ii) A State from whose ter­ri­to­ry or facil­i­ty a space object is launched .…”.
31. See V. Kayser, Launch­ing Space Objects: Issues of Lia­bil­i­ty and Future Prospects 45 (2001).
32. Out­er Space Treaty, supra note 2, at art. II.
33. See Ricky J. Lee, Law and Reg­u­la­tion of Com­mer­cial Min­ing of Min­er­als in Out­er Space 164–170 (Springer Sci­ence & Busi­ness Media eds., 2012). But see Sarah Cof­fey, Note, Estab­lish­ing a Legal Frame­work for Prop­er­ty Rights to Nat­ur­al Resources in Out­er Space, 41 Case W. Res. J. of Int’l L. 119, 126 (2009) (argu­ing that the treaties do not pro­hib­it own­er­ship of resources extract­ed from celes­tial bod­ies). See also Leslie I. Ten­nen, Out­er Space: A Pre­serve for All Humankind, 2 Hous. J. Int’l. L. 145, 149 (1979) (posit­ing that the cus­tom­ary pro­hi­bi­tion on the appro­pri­a­tion of out­er space extends to pri­vate actors).
34. See Eilene M. Gal­loway, Agree­ment Gov­ern­ing the Activ­i­ties of States on the Moon and Oth­er Celes­tial Bod­ies, 5 Ann. Air & Sp. L. 481, 498–499 (1980) (sug­gest­ing that uni­lat­er­al min­ing exploits vio­late the out­er space treaties’ cus­tom­ary pro­hi­bi­tion on non­ap­pro­pri­a­tion).
35. Joy­ee­ta Chat­ter­jee, Legal Issues Relat­ing To Unau­tho­rized Space Debris Reme­di­a­tion, Int’l Astro­nau­ti­cal Fed’n (2014), https://iislweb.org/docs/Diederiks2014a.pdf.
36. Id.
37. Out­er Space Treaty, supra note 2, arts. VII & VIII.
38. Nation­al Aero­nau­tics and Space Admin­is­tra­tion Autho­riza­tion Act, 1980, Pub. L. No. 96–48, 93 State 348, § 308(f) (1979).
39. Amer­i­can Space Com­merce Free Enter­prise Act of 2017, H.R. 2809, 115th Cong. § 80101(11) (2017) (“The term ‘space object’ means—(i) a human-made object locat­ed in out­er space, includ­ing on the Moon and oth­er celes­tial bod­ies, with or with­out human occu­pants, that was launched from Earth, such as a satel­lite or a space­craft, includ­ing com­po­nent parts of the object; and (ii) all items car­ried on such object that are intend­ed for use in out­er space out­side of, and inde­pen­dent of, the oper­a­tion of such object.”).
40. Ken­neth Chang, supra note 11.