Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Law Professor Growing Interest in Emerging Area of Space Law

George Watson

January 13, 2016

Currently an online course, Horn professor Vickie Sutton is planning to make space law a full-time course through the Texas Tech Law School in Spring 2017.

Space Law

The television and movie franchise Star Trek called space “the final frontier.” Space was considered the last untapped expanse of human exploration.

In terms of business opportunities, that's not science fiction. For many companies looking to gain a foothold beyond the Earth's atmosphere, space exploration and business ventures are a reality as the U.S. space program has transitioned from government control to private enterprise.

That expansion into space also presents the opportunity for up-and-coming lawyers to get in on the ground floor of space law. They'll be responsible for determining the laws and regulations that will guide free enterprise in space, from international treaties to even state law.

Only a few law schools across the globe offer graduate degrees dealing with space law, and a handful of others offer courses in space law. Vickie Sutton with the Texas Tech University School of Law is adding to that list.

Vickie Sutton
Vickie Sutton

Sutton, a Paul Whitfield Horn professor of law and the director of the Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy, is offering a short course online entitled “Business Opportunities for Space Law for Now and the Future” with plans on creating a full course that will be offered through the Texas Tech Law School beginning in Spring 2017, known as Space Law.

“This is kind of a little experiment,” Sutton said. “I'm using this short course as a way to interest people in space law.”

As it is now, space law is a segment of the main courses Sutton teaches about emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, law and science, law and biotechnology and cyber security law. The current online course on space law covers its basics and details the business opportunities available in space.

The course covers the development of activities in space and the basic laws and regulations that regulate those activities. It also explores the international asteroid defense program, the emergence of asteroid mining as well as space tourism and how those areas will be regulated as well.

But as Sutton worked through developing the online version, she understood the need to make this a full-time, three-hour course and began expanding its scope with the goal of getting it added to the curriculum about a year from now.

“We've planned to develop and bring this course online over time,” Sutton said. “Space law was proposed this fall and was approved by the faculty. I think this will be a successful course because we've spent a great amount of time preparing and thinking through how to present it.”

Turn of the century

Sutton said the first discussions of space law occurred as far back as the 1800s, well before the world's inhabitants were flying in airplanes, much less spaceships.

But lawyers and policy makers were already aware of the need to regulate aspects of traveling to outer space. Even as aviation laws came along, the need for different laws regarding space was recognized.

“You're not going to have jurisdictional boundaries in space like you do for aviation where you take off and land and fly through air space and can regulate that,” Sutton said. “That's not possible in space law where you're passing through at a distance and not landing. It created a whole other territory for jurisdictional, substantive law.”

Al Sacco Jr.
Al Sacco Jr.

It created space law, and the need for space law courses like the one Sutton is developing. The short, online course now available will navigate those interested through the legal aspects of space travel and development to give those interested a clearer picture of emerging business opportunities and how to navigate the basics of space law.

Of course, the more detailed, three-hour course coming online in about a year will delve into those aspects in much more detail, which meant a different form of curriculum for the course. Sutton has written numerous textbooks and instructional publications on emerging technology, but had to design the course in a different way.

Part of that included how to teach the course. Law school students traditionally learn through classroom interaction with the professor, but there has been a push at Texas Tech for more online learning opportunities. Sutton's challenge has been to meld the two learning methods while also making the class attractive to all students.

“I designed the course for non-law and law students,” Sutton said. “I think bringing law students together with science students or engineering students is really optimal for science and technology courses. The law student learns from the science student and the science student learns from the law student.”

Sutton is also bringing in experts to help with the class. Al Sacco Jr., the dean of the Whitacre College of Engineering, was a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1995 and will serve as a guest lecturer for the course.

Sacco said learning about space law at this juncture is important because of the rise of space commercialization and the opportunities it provides students.

“Space law is already important in almost all our voice and video is through satellite links,” Sacco said. “With the commercialization of space as the next frontier, for the right student, this information will be critical.”

Business opportunities

Sutton said the timing of having the course come online is perfect not only with the State of Texas being a leader in space entrepreneurialism but also the push by private companies exploring opportunities in space. She cited as an example the growing interest in space tourism by companies like Virgin Galactic, which is developing a commercial spacecraft to provide suborbital spaceflights to tourists and launches for space science missions and small satellites.

“Anytime human beings are engaged in virtually any endeavor, whether on or off the planet, laws are critical to be a fair and equitable use of that resource,” Sacco said. “This applies to oil and gas as well as space. So the reasons laws are drafted will be better understood and appreciated in general.”

Space Law

There's also the exploration of the mining of asteroids, which could provide for new sources of minerals and materials such as gold, silver and platinum. In late November, President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law, which clarifies the legal aspects of private development of space resources consistent to U.S. international treaty obligations.

There's also the aspect of personal legal claims. In the online course video, Sutton discusses a case where an individual claimed asteroid Eros 433 and tried to sue the federal government for damages for landing and parking a vehicle on the rock.

Those are just some of the areas explored in the current online course that will be covered more in depth with the full course next spring. It's an area Sutton says will only continue to grow in need and interest as the government moves away from space exploration and turns it over to private companies.

“So what we have now in the state of evolution of space is the private sector is thinking how they can take what has been developed and how entrepreneurs can make it into something profitable,” Sutton said. “We're at that stage right now where it's not quite profitable, but it's getting closer.

“I think the course may introduce you to things you haven't thought about before. It will trigger the imagination if you want to get into business and be the new law firm associate who has a broader background in new and emerging technologies. If you want to do traditional law this is probably not the course for you, but if you want to change the world and explore the future, this is your course.”

A link to the short course can be found here.