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June 27, 2013

CSU professor advises on laws of private space travel

Emerging commercial spaceflight industry carries vast economic potential

By Doug Vehovec

Family rocket trips -not far off?

The Space Race – the Cold War-era competition between the United States and Russia – ran for almost 20 years as the two rivals sought to best each other in the arena of space exploration. Each country spent unprecedented amounts on research to accelerate scientific advancement and claim superiority over the final frontier.

Their endeavors culminated in the International Space Station, the habitable man-made satellite jointly created by the Soviet Union, U.S. and European countries.

Now, thanks to companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, a growing private space travel industry may one day bring ordinary earth-bound folks for a visit.

These companies and others like them also offer opportunities. Potential jobs for technicians, engineers and operations personnel are growing every day. New opportunities are also emerging in related fields like law as well.

CSU law professor and COMSTAC appointee Mark SundahlHow these companies will operate and be regulated within the U.S. is a task under the advisement of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). Cleveland State's own Mark Sundahl, associate dean for administration and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law professor was recently appointed to the committee by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Professor Sundahl holds a J.D. from the University of California Hastings College of the Law and a doctorate in classics from Brown University. In addition to his appointment to COMSTAC, he is a member of the International Institute of Space Law, headquartered in Paris.

“For the first time, private companies are on the verge of suborbital and orbital space tourism – and are doing other things that only governments have done before,” said Sundahl in a press release. “The law is lagging behind the technology, so the FAA is taking steps to properly regulate this new activity.”

The committee is mostly made up of executives from different space companies and lawyers who bring legal expertise. Sundahl’s role is to bring advice and knowledge about international law. Work is done mostly through teleconferences, but there are two committee meetings yearly in May and October.

Sundahl grew up in Los Angeles in the shadow of the aerospace industry. He was interested in the idea of space travel and exploration as a child, but never expected it to become a career path. That changed when he became involved with drafting a treaty on satellite financing through his work as a lawyer.

“Through that I was exposed to the broader world of space law,” Sundahl said. “The older, established space industry is telecommunications and remote sensing. But there’s the new space, which is involved more in private human spaceflight.”

As Sundahl’s work in the field expanded, he developed a graduate course called Space Law. He first taught the course in 2010 as part of a study abroad program in Russia. The course is offered every other year to students eager to learn about this fast-developing field.

“It’s usually pretty full,” Sundahl said. “There’s a good deal of interest in it.”

One of the questions faced by those working in space law is the definition of space itself. To date, there is no internationally accepted point at which outer space begins. Space is referred to in treaties, but no further explanation is given.

The issue is an important one, because air and space laws are very different and the rules change when you get into space, according to Sundahl. But he notes that once you’re in orbit, there isn’t much debate on the subject.

Getting into space in the first place is one of the larger areas of law that COMSTAC considers. There is already an established body of law regarding commercial space flight and re-entry, including Title 51 of the U.S. Code.

As it stands right now, no one can launch a rocket or put objects into orbit without the proper licensure. With the advent of private commercial spaceflight on the horizon, Congress passed a statute authorizing the FAA to develop new regulations. They consult with COMSTAC for industry perspective to develop procedure.

“So far the FAA is charged with protecting the safety of the public on the ground,” Sundahl said. “But they could address other issues, such as the safety of passengers on the spacecraft. The new issue that is going to be faced by the FAA, if they’re authorized by Congress, would be regulation of orbital space travel.”

Some companies are already hard at work on putting people into orbit and beyond. One such company, Excalibur Almaz, plans to sell seats aboard a 500,000-mile round trip bound for the moon, with flights set to take place as early as 2015.

“We’re ready to sell the tickets,” said Art Dula, founder and chief executive of Excalibur Almaz, at a space tourism meeting in London.

One of the most exciting things about private spaceflight is the promise it holds for the future. The field of space law is just one example of that promise. By its very nature it is a field that requires international cooperation.

“It’s not only international, it’s extranational – supernational,” Sundahl said. “No country can assert sovereignty over outer space. Everyone has total freedom to go wherever they want in outer space. It’s everyone’s territory. We share it.”

Efforts to regulate private human spaceflight are underway in many countries across the globe. But the U.S. is the leader in the field, according to Sundahl. No other countries have issued regulations yet.

In the U.S. there are no design requirements or certifications on spacecraft. Regulation states only that passengers give informed consent because of the potential danger posed.

“It’s highly regulated, but with a light touch when it comes to human spaceflight,” Sundahl said.

Profitability and sustainable business models are the keys to the success of commercial spaceflights. Concepts like space tourism, point-to-point space travel – like one hour flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo – and asteroid mining are just a few of the areas being explored, according to Sundahl.

According to a 2010 FAA report on the economic impact of commercial space transportation, the industry ranked third amongst comparable industries in economic activity. Employing 1,029,440 people and earning $53 billion, commercial space transportation and enabled industries stimulated the U.S. economy to the tune of $208 billion.

A new Space Race is underway. The difference now is that in the not-too-distant future everyone will have the potential to be part of it.

Taking photos of Earth from outer space - this could be you.