By Jessica Andrews, NSS Legal Fellow
As a crowning achievement of international cooperation in tense times, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed various groups of space travelers since 2000. Currently the ISS is funded only through 2024, though the current NASA Reauthorization bill would continue that funding through 2030. Yes, the hardware is old and has battled the harshest of environments for 20 years. And though it may be time to move on from ISS, it is not time for the United States to abandon the inspirational and utilitarian concept of maintaining a human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO).
While no doubt expensive, the ISS has proved to be an ideal platform for international collaboration, scientific research, and even legal breakthroughs. The International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) offers a monumental achievement: an agreement wherein nations often at odds on Earth have determined to share resources in space. Like the ISS itself, the IGA provides a strong foundation for a collaborative and peaceful future for humanity in space. We should build on these agreements to continue to reduce ambiguities in concepts of liability, due regard, and harmful interference. Continuing to test and balance legal relationships in LEO is vital to humanity’s future as we continue to push the bounds of our own horizons.
As the United States proceeds to decommission ISS, other countries and private entities are expected to work quickly to fill the void. For example, China is set to begin construction on its third space station in LEO as soon as 2021. Expected to be about one-fifth the size of the ISS, it is hoped that the new station will be able to host astronauts in 2022. China has already begun to engage many of the United States’ traditional space partners to participate in its new “Chinese International Space Station,” including France, Germany and Japan. While any effort to maintain human presence in LEO is welcome, the relationship between the United States and China remains contentious and, arguably, humanity will be much better served if more than one nation dominates LEO.
So, what should the United States do? Recently, United States space policy has focused on efforts to build and sustain a commercial space industry. The decommissioning of the ISS provides great opportunity. One way to ensure the longevity of new space stations is for the United States to engage private corporations in partnerships to further advancements in space stations and space travel. As the National Space Society outlined in its position paper, “Next Generation Space Stations,” the United States can provide research and initial funding to help private entities gain their own foothold in the space station race as well as to create efficient, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective space stations. In return, the United States can reduce the long-term financial burdens on the government through contractual agreements with the private entities to use their shuttles and space hotels. Further, this will allow the United States to maintain a physical presence in space should their physical presence be necessary to respond to adversarial actions. Finally, since multiple international space stations are predicted, such agreements must continue to expand beyond the bounds of the ISS and plan for interactions between space stations as well as spacefarers traveling beyond LEO.
To learn more about the suggestions for maintaining the ISS and planning for the next generation of space stations, please see the NSS position paper “Next Generation Space Stations.”
About NSS Legal Fellow Jessica Andrews
After working approximately ten years as a behavior analyst, Jessica Andrews ventured into law school at Florida State University College of Law with the goal of working in health and pharmaceutical law. Before law school, she earned a master’s in applied behavior analysis from Florida State University and a second master’s in public health practice from the University of South Florida. Jessica is currently an executive editor at Florida State University Law Review, the managing editor of FSU Business Review, and a member of Health Law Society, Aviation & Space Law, Women’s Law Symposium, and Business Law Society.