Space Law?

Martian rights. Asteroid mining disputes. Inter-galactic treaties.

Someday an attorney will work in these practice areas, but sadly that day is not today. So much of what humans do out there – in space – is governed by laws grounded right here on Earth.

This past summer I had the honor of working as a Law Clerk at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Office of the General Counsel.

Yes, NASA has lawyers! From environmental legal issues to contracts and international agreements, NASA attorneys work on a wide range of matters enabling tremendous leaps in research and development and advancing our nation’s exploration of the cosmos. NASA is a United States government agency responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Thumbs up at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland

NASA has over 15,000 employees, 15 centers and facilities throughout the United States, and partnerships with public and private entities. Also, the space business is dangerous; new frontiers often are. Naturally legal issues will arise.

NASA is constantly pushing the limits of human exploration. A large part of what NASA is working on now is geared towards our nation’s Journey to Mars. Astronaut Scott Kelly is spending a year in space on board the International Space Station to examine changes in the human body and performance of functional tasks in a low-gravity environment. The new Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s latest rocket propulsion innovation that will allow humans to travel beyond Earth’s orbit to near Earth asteroids and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.

Oculus Rift enables the viewer to take a virtual reality tour of Mars. The visible scenery was captured by NASA's Curiosity Rover - which landed on the red planet back in 2012. Clearly I was beyond thrilled by this experience.

Oculus Rift enables the viewer to take a virtual reality tour of Mars. The visible scenery was captured by NASA’s Curiosity Rover – which landed on the red planet back in 2012. Clearly I was thrilled by this experience.

NASA hosted a program on Capitol Hill bringing members of Congress and their staff up to date on what the agency is doing to advance human exploration of the red planet. The program showcased experiments and innovations that NASA is working on in anticipation of our nation’s journey to Mars.

This summer also marked the completion of humanity’s reconnaissance of all the planets in our solar system, something NASA started just 50 years ago. The New Horizons spacecraft passed by Pluto, marking the first time humanity has seen the dwarf planet up close.


Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

Ancient civilizations were intrigued by the cosmos. Visionaries like Galileo and Ibn Al-Haytham made valuable contributions to the advancement of human exploration, which in turn advanced human civilization. The great physicist Ibn Al-Haytham’s was able to thrive because he lived in a society that welcomed scientific truth and the unyielding curiosity that enabled innovative thinking and critical discussions.

Because of these leaps in exploration, humanity has propelled itself to where it is today and can dream beyond the limits of our current reality.

As future lawyers, our careers will take us in many directions. For those of us who go into policy-making, we must understand the vital importance of sustaining a society that values research and development and enables innovation – even in turbulent times. For those of us that go into the private sector, we must understand that the research and development that comes out of NASA, other federal agencies, and colleges/universities have major implications for existing commercial industries. The research and development can also give birth to industries that don’t even exist yet – supporting millions of jobs and sparking the need for new forms of laws and regulations.

As future lawyers, we have the opportunity to take the law to new horizons. Though most of us will never be astronauts, we can embrace the pioneering spirit and go where no lawyer has gone before.

BONUS: Thank you for reading my entire post. Here’s a trailer for a movie I’m really looking forward to: 

This summer, I had the privilege of working as a law clerk at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. This experience was transformative to me as a law student and a person, and I want to share some of it with you. This is the first of a series of posts on my summer at NASA and a lawyer’s role in enabling innovation. 

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