The niche business of space law may be poised to take off, according to one veteran space attorney, Del Smith, of Reed Smith, who will make the opening remarks at the American Bar Association symposium on the state of space law in Washington, D.C on Thursday.
Space law – a subspecialty of aviation law – blends traditional commercial legal skills with international relations and political savvy to broker projects as diverse as salvaging broken satellites and asteroid mining.
Smith, who has been in the Society of Satellite Professionals International Hall of Fame since 2007 and has written four books on space commercialization, said the number of lawyers getting into space is already on the rise. In the late 1990s, there were only about 10 lawyers working on space-related matters, he said. But by 2007, that total had grown to 25 or 30 space lawyers worldwide, which has since ballooned to currently “a couple hundred individuals with expertise in space law.”
“It will be a seriously growing area for the next few years,” Smith said in a telephone interview.
President Donald Trump signaled his interest in space during an April 24 call with astronauts on the International Space Station. He urged the National Aeronautic & Space Administration to accelerate its timeline for sending humans to Mars from the 2030s to sometime “during my first term or, at worst, during my second term.”
Trump also proposed boosting NASA’s 2018 budget to $19.1 billion, a small increase from the $19 billion the previous administration allotted, but with a significant realignment of priorities. In signing the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, on March 21, Trump shifted NASA’s focus from former President Barack Obama’s emphasis on climate change research in favor of returning astronauts to space.
Trump’s proposed budget would slash environmental science funding by 9 percent, while maintaining spending for manned space exploration and developing new technologies in partnerships with private companies, according to figures provided by NASA.
Until this spring, Smith had operated his own space law practice at Dentons with his partner Elizabeth Evans. In May, they moved to Reed Smith, where he said they’re assembling a practice group of 45 space-industry specialists through hiring and lateral transfers.
Recently, space lawyers have expanded beyond aiding traditional space-related tasks like obtaining operating licenses, broadcast frequencies and financing for telecommunications and weather satellites and have started bridging disciplines in regulatory, commercial, insurance and merger & acquisition law.
Negotiating so-called “hosted payloads,” where military users piggyback on commercial telecommunications or earth-sensing satellites, is one of the most active areas of space law, he said.
“It’s something every space lawyer spends a little bit of time on every day,” he said. “There are a large number of clients who want to know how to do business in that area, because the nice thing about the military is they pay their bills.”
Some law firms are probing space-based telemedicine, where satellites can link doctors in major hospitals with standalone diagnostic or robotic surgical units anywhere in the world, according to Smith. Such units might be used to treat patients in remote villages or save the lives of wounded soldiers on battlefields.
Smith is something of a veteran in the growing field of lawyers working in this area: In 1984, he arranged NASA’s first recovery of a pair of malfunctioning commercial satellites for his client, an insurance company. That event was immortalized by a photo of a spacewalking astronaut carrying a “For Sale” sign.
“Lloyd’s of London was facing a $600 million total loss on the satellites, but it turned into a very successful commercial transaction for everyone,” he said.
There has also been significant growth of privately owned launch facilities. Three firms – including one by the billionaire entrepreneur behind Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic and now Virgin Galatic – are working on mining asteroids.
“If Richard Branson’s looking at it, it can’t be too crazy,” Smith said, of Virgin Galactic’s founder. But prospective space miners need lawyers to figure out if they can keep the profits they bring back to earth or whether they’ll be forced to share, “because the heavens belong to everyone,” Smith said.