Lawyers In Space!

As space becomes more of an area for commerce and travel, the lawyers aren’t going to be far behind:

There are stellar opportunities for lawyers specializing in space exploration. Space law is quickly becoming an integral part of the evolving aerospace industry. These lawyers exist in a tightly knit industry that deals with all kinds of practical issues and some that seem cribbed from science fiction. Depending on whether the space lawyer is in private practice or academia, he or she could handle anything from liability laws pertaining to litigious space tourists to the legal framework surrounding human encounters with E.T.

“Space tourists are usually high-income earners whose survivors can use high-powered lawyers–insurability for private space travel flights is a big issue at this time,” says space lawyer Doug Griffith, a former Marine Helicopter pilot now working within the commercial space industry. Like him, lots of space lawyers are veterans. And nearly all of them are space and science geeks who found a way to combine their passion for outer space with legal practice.

Space lawyers even have their own legal journal and university programs. The marvelously titled Journal of Space Law is published by the University of Mississippi Law School’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law. Articles in the current issue deal with, among other things, death liability in commercial space flight accidents, international law relating to suborbital flights, and mineral rights for lunar mining. Students interested in space law also have the option of studying in the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; other law schools also offer space law courses within larger programs.

Surprisingly, it’s not the legal profession’s equivalent of a degree in fine arts. Far from it. Short of bumping into Alf, the final frontier for space law is extraterrestrial mining. Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture backed by filmmaker James Cameron and Googlers Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, is entering a legal gray area. “Outer space mining, in legal terms, is the Wild West,” Griffith tells Fast Company. Lawyer Michael Listner wrote an article on the topic that notes no one has truly figured out sovereignty laws for outer space and private, non-governmental exploration–the United States or China cannot claim sovereignty over an asteroid, but private corporations might. Planetary Resources, for their part, claims that asteroids do not count as “celestial bodies” regulated by the 1967 treaty because meteorites, which are asteroids that fell to earth, are not covered under it. If Planetary Resources really does succeed in starting up extraterrestrial mining operations, the value of the minerals it finds might pale in comparison to space lawyers’ billable hours.

Did you ever notice how there are almost never lawyers in science fiction?  One episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation included Starfleet’s equivalent of a Judge Advocate General, but that’s it as far as I can remember. Perhaps that’s a sign that the great Space Lawyers experiment didn’t work out so well.

I’m also forced to wonder if sending our legal profession into the great beyond isn’t going to be seen by other forms of life as an act of aggression.

H/T: Dave Schuler

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jeremy says:

    We need a caption contest with Doug’s head photoshopped into an astronaut suit in the great beyond.

    Though to be honest, Doug, if we do get into space, most lawyers won’t be getting space suits.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Ooh, ooh, ooh, but this gives me an idea though!

    Night Court…In SPAAAACE!

  3. Boyd says:

    I’m also forced to wonder if sending our legal profession into the great beyond isn’t going to be seen by other forms of life as an act of aggression.

    Maybe it’s just applying a little bleach to the gene pool here on Earth.

  4. James H says:

    Did you ever notice how there are almost never lawyers in science fiction?

    I don’t recall lawyers on Babylon 5, but I do recall that the station had a justice system that handled both civil and criminal matters. Most memorable was this scene, though we don’t know how the trial turned out.

  5. rodney dill says:

    Maybe someone should retain the legal services of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt.

  6. Jeremy says:

    @rodney dill:

    To Boldly Go Where No Sane And/Or Sober And/Or Shameful Lawyer Has Gone Before!

  7. James H says:

    Ahem …

    To explore strange new torts
    To seek out new fees and new causes of action

  8. Vast Variety says:

    There are several instances in Star Trek where a legal system of sorts exists. In DS9 Quark’s Mother was tried and convicted of earning a profit as a woman. Most of the legal stuff was told as back story or hinted at and not really sean but it’s there.

    In the Origional Series Spock underwent a Court Martial.

    In Star Trek VI you have Kirk and McCoy facing trial in a Klingon court. Imagine if all of our judges used an electified gavel and had to wear gloves.

    In Voyager there was the episode where a scientist member of a race decesended from Earth Diansaurs was put on trial for being a heritic.

    And of course the whole premise that under lies Star Trek the Next Generation and ties the series together is that the Q Continuim put humanity on trial for being a “Barbariaic Savage Race”.

    Yes – I’m a Nerd.

  9. Moosebreath says:

    “Did you ever notice how there are almost never lawyers in science fiction?”

    In large part that’s due to science fiction often being tied to technical problems, which lawyers are poorly suited to handle. When they try to create ones, they tend to argue in pop psychology, rather than precedent (especially Heinlein’s courtroom scenes).

    On the other hand, I actually enjoyed Steven Brust’s lawyer character in Iorich (which is fantasy, not SF).

  10. rudderpedals says:

    In recent SF The Unincorporated Man includes some fun law stuff. I don’t mind if it’s bizarre, it’s SF and reading shouldn’t be a busman’s holiday.

  11. Anderson says:

    Did you ever notice how there are almost never lawyers in science fiction?

    I suppose the idea is that if we have FTL travel, teleportation and telepathy machines, and laser pistols whose batteries allow 100+ shots per charge, then surely we’ll have figured out how to do without damn lawyers.

  12. Ernieyeball says:
  13. Michael J. Listner, Esquire says:

    Understandably, not many in the legal profession or outside it for that matter appreciate the role lawyers play when it comes to issues regarding outer space. Space law is not relegated to its own corner of the universe, but rather as we becoming more reliant on access to outer space, space law continues to merge with other areas of law including real property, intellectual property, contract, insurance and even tort law.

    Yes, it is a specialized area, but one that is becoming a critical part to the conveniences we take for granted as part of our everyday life, including credit cards, cell phones and weather. To make the point more salient, most of us enjoy cable and satellite television. Without the involvement of lawyers specializing in space law that convenience would not exist and with it the televised Monday night football that some consider essential to life itself.

    So, scoff if you will, but those of us who look beyond the court room drama that has epitomized the view of the American legal system understand that space law is a growing segment that is only going to grow as time and technology progresses.

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    One of my favorite Sci Fi writers, L.E. Moddesit, always has plenty of them and they are usually swarmy.

  15. John Burgess says:

    BSG had several episodes including a lawyer.

    I’m pretty sure Heinlein had a few lawyers appear–always as heavies–in his novels, though I can’t recall exact titles. I suspect The Man Who Sold the Moon had one or two.

  16. Dazedandconfused says:


    In space, no one can hear you scream.

  17. matt says:

    @Vast Variety: Sadly I know every example you provided and more…

    @John Burgess:
    Romo was an awesome character.

  18. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    What do you call 50,000 lawyers sent into deep space?

    A start…

  19. MarkedMan says:

    @Ron Beasley: What’s “swarmy”? A lot of smarmy?

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:
  21. Ben Muniz says:

    Re: “Space law is quickly becoming an integral part of the evolving aerospace industry” — as with a lot of the increasing non-industry commentary about commercial space in the past 2-3 years, this statement appears oblivious to decades-old practice in the industry pioneered by commercial communications satellites. Space law has already been around for many, many years. Don’t reporters do research anymore?

    As for lawyers in SF, my favorite along those lines has always been the novel _Gladiator at Law_ by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth. I agree with reviewer Jules Jones on Amazon who says “Pohl and Kornbluth’s’s sharp satire of the consumer society and corporate corruption of government is as relevant today as when it was first published 50 years ago.”

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Well, if you have contracts, you’re going to have to have a legal system….And there’s a lot of stuff out there that our present systems really DON’T cover: the law governing space elevators, for example.

    I think the reason you don’t get lawyers in SF is because SF is written (for the most part) by technogeeks and libertarians who don’t realize exactly how fundamental a legal system is for an economy/culture to survive. Nor do they realize the number of topics a legal system will have to cover–unless you want to leave it up to “custom’ or the religious dudes.

    I realize that all the libertarians are slavering at the mouth at the concept of getting out there on the High Frontier, but if you’re going to have property out in space, you’re going to have to have a legal system. ( I really wish that Libertarians would realize that there has never been a libertarian economy in history that was larger than a few thousand people. When pressed for historical examples of libertarian economies, the best libertarians can do is mutter about some self-governing groups in Greenland in the 11th century. If that’s the only example you’ve got to put up against the 99.99% of societies out there that HAVEN’T been aligned under libertarian ways, then sorry, don’t try to pass off Libertarianism as being “natural” and “obvious”. It certainly isn’t how Greenland is being governed NOW. End of rant.)

  23. Laura Montgomery says:

    Heinlein, Pournelle and Flynn have portrayed lawyers in science fiction.

    People interested in space law also need to study administrative law, which governs how administrative agencies work. In the United States, there are three regulatory agencies with oversight of space activities conducted by U.S. citizens or which affect the United States: the FAA, the FCC and NOAA. The FAA licenses and regulates launch and reentry, the FCC licenses satellites broadcasting into the United States and NOAA takes care of remote sensing satellites.

    Administrative law governs how these agencies issue regulations and licenses.

  24. Mark Michael says:

    You missed one.

    A really, really good one for this subject.

    In the original Star Trek series, Kirk was put on court-martial for dereliction of duty resulting in the death of a member of his crew:

    The episode was entitled “Court Martial”.

    His attorney had some memorable little speeches during the trial, like:

    Now that I’ve got something HUMAN to talk about. Rights, sir! Human rights! The Bible, The Code of Hammurabi, and of Justinian, Magna Carta, The Constitution of the United States, Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, The Statutes of Alpha III. Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights. Rights of the accused to a trial by his peers, to be represented by counsel, the rights of cross-examination; but, MOST importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him – a right to which my client has been denied.

    The most devastating witness against my client is not a human being. It’s a machine, an information system – the computer log of the Enterprise.

    And I repeat, I speak of rights! A machine has none. A man must. My client has the right to face his accuser, and if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine! Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us! I ask that my motion be granted. And more than that, gentlemen – in the name of a humanity fading in the shadow of the machine – I demand it. I demand it!

    Good stuff, all.