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Dec. 6, 2012

CSU prof. to advise FAA on space travel laws

By Eric Bonzar

Mark J. Sundahl, associate professor and associate dean for administration at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, will boldly go where no man at Cleveland State has gone before.

Sundahl will advise the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), regarding new regulations for private space activity as a member of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory committee.

Sundahl’s expertise in outer space law and the legal issues arising from the commercialization of private space travel will allow him to assist in the writing of proposed legislations.

“The FAA now has working groups looking into whether we need to create new statutes and regulations governing orbital, private activity,” Sundahl said. “We don’t have any laws governing that yet.”

With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration moving away from low Earth orbit space travel, and entering into more deep space exploration, Sundahl said the need for space regulations are now needed to police the growing number of privately owned companies who are delving into space travel.

“The general idea is for NASA to get out of low Earth orbit, and to let private companies step in and do everything NASA used to do, such as deliver cargo to the International Space Station and to deliver crew,” Sundahl said.

Sundahl said NASA will be focused on the exploration of deep space. With companies like SpaceX, which on May 31 became the first private company to visit the International Space Station with its commercial spacecraft “Dragon,” to Virgin Group founder and chairman Richard Branson’s declaration that his Virgin Galactic will begin sub-orbital space tourism by the end of 2013.

Sundahl said the benefits of commercializing space travel is no longer limited by the proverbial sky.

He said companies are seeking profitable business models in space, ranging from long-stay vacations and possible colonization of planets like Mars or the Moon to asteroid mining and pharmaceutical development, something he thinks could be revolutionary.

“From what I understand, it’s easier to carry out certain experiments in zero gravity environments,” Sundahl said. “Who knows, it may be the development of a big selling drug, maybe the cure for cancer because of the ability to conduct that research in space.”

But as ambitious as these ideas are, Sundahl said they will all need to be regulated.
And that will require rewriting international space laws that have been around since the 1960s.

“It definitely raises issues with international law,” Sundahl said. "Currently, international space law prohibits any assertions of sovereignty or ownership over celestial bodies."

“So what does that mean for these asteroid miners? Can they stake that claim, enforce that claim, mine that asteroid and exploit the natural resources?” Sundahl asked.

“Those are all issues that are unclear under international law,” he said. “So that’s going to have to be figured out in order to give these companies the clarity they need so that they know that they will be able to profit from their investment.”