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HLS Panel Explores the Future Frontiers of Space Governance

Representatives from NASA, Space Systems Loral, and SpaceX discussed the future of laws governing outer space during a panel at the Law School Wednesday.

As technology advances and the possibility of humans populating other planets comes ever closer, panelists proposed potential methods of expanding current law practices to fit a new frontier that is not on Earth—a sort of “space law.”

Stephen F. Meil, a Law School student and editor of the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, the organization that organized the event, said there were few formal programs in "space law" in the country. For NASA Chief of Staff Michael J. French, it was precisely this unknown territory that drew him to the industry in the first place.

“I foresaw an upcoming intersection of business, law, politics, and all those unique things in a new and undefined way,” French said.

But Michael N. Gold, vice president of Silicon Valley-based satellite corporation Space Systems Loral, said the term “space law” might be misleading.

“I hate the term space law,” he said. “Because there is no space law… 95 percent of our issues are traditional issues, and we’re just applying them into this new and relevant field.” He emphasized people could use existing law that govern people on Earth and apply those laws to space.

As for the future of commercializing space, French said he anticipates that tourism and research is the “next big thing.”

Karen LaFon, a launch engineer at SpaceX, said that international law and policy will play a significant role in the future of space governance.

“When we go to Mars, we need to know what the Outer Space Treaty says and make sure we follow all the regulations in communicating with the government and with other countries,” she said.

The panelists also considered the implications of the upcoming presidential election on space governance.

“We don’t know who’s going to be in this [executive] position. We could ‘make space great again,’ or not. I don’t trust the government,” Gold said.

French, however, was less concerned.

“I think the space program has benefitted from bipartisan support for a long time,” French said. “So I think overall, you’re going to see a fairly stable continuation of what NASA has been doing, which is pushing us out further in the universe to benefit us on Earth.”

Law school students who attended the event said they found the panel interesting.Yanbing Chu had never considered the intersections of law and space before.

“I’m very interested in space-related topics, like physics and astrophysics, but I didn’t think of how it would relate to legal issues,” Chu said.

Sean C. Finan said he thought the talk, which more than 80 students attended, was empowering.

“I’m doing work right now in biotechnology, which is kind of a parallel because it is also an upcoming field with lots to explore,” Finan said. “But I’ve also always been interested in space, and this talk has made me realize it is so much more possible to go to outer space.”

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