Space Law: Corporate Development and Investment

By Angela White

Why are people interested in investing in outer space? What are the human and financial costs associated with developing this area of the universe? How close are we to Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century? All valid questions, the answers to which may vary (except to the question about Zenon – we are 32 years away!). Regardless of the reasons, technological innovation increases the possibility of outer space being the next frontier for international development and investment. Although many states, corporations, and other entities already use satellites to collect data and for telecommunications purposes, the most ambitious endeavor is the creation of the International Space Station (ISS).

The ISS is probably the most complex international project in history. It costs five agencies, representing fifteen countries,[1] an approximate total of $100-billion, and each signatory has contributed or will contribute a section or component of the facility.[2] Despite this exemplary show of teamwork, the ISS emphasizes questions of territorial issues and liability for activities in outer space. While there are international outer space treaties, issues raised with the ISS are not sufficiently resolved with these documents.

Brief History

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first country to launch a satellite.[3] Prior to this, the legal status of outer space was unclear. Ideally, the same rules that governed airspace would easily extend to include Earth’s orbit. Since 1919, under international air law, a nation’s sovereignty extended to the airspace over its territory.[4] However, if this rule were to apply to outer space, the Soviet Union would have technically violated international law by launching its satellite into an orbit that passed over various countries, including the United States, without permission. Nonetheless, no action was taken because the U.S. had its own plans of launching spy satellites.[5] It was therefore determined that rules that governed spacecrafts and aircrafts would differ.

The Legal Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) drafted the primary treaty on international outer space uses.[6] Although this treaty addressed good-neighbor principles, it did not address the basics of commercial development or exploitation of outer space.[7]  The split in interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty is between the more-developed North and the lesser-developed South. More developed countries believe that the development of outer space should benefit those who develop it. Lesser-developed countries believe that the benefits should be shared with all nations.[8]

Difficulties in Investing in Outer Space

As indicated above, investing in outer space endeavors is inherently risky. The law is unclear and it’s extremely expensive to finance space ventures. Although some organizations do provide funding for outer space investments, they have yielded minimal rewards, making them reluctant to reinvest.[9] Further, insurance companies are also reluctant, given the risk of space accidents and rate of failures.[10]

Space debris also poses a significant risk because it is difficult to track and it is prevalent in the finite near-Earth space.[11] It is particularly dangerous because of its high velocity. One of the main issues with space is that almost anything can be a weapon – even something as small as a piece of chipped paint can cause serious damage to satellites and other devices.[12] Ideally, space debris could be collected and removed, but, as indicated above, searching for space debris would be very difficult and expensive.[13] Technological advancements have led to the development of new material that shields structures against certain types of smaller debris and new techniques that limit the creation of additional space debris.[14]

Finally, even if funding and space debris were no longer issues, there is still a lack of sufficient regulation. Furthermore, who would enforce the regulations? There are only so many countries with the ability to reach space on their own, and none of them are an obvious choice. Let’s say the United Nations will enforce the regulations. There would still be a substantial amount of additional funds required to pay for such regulations and enforcement. Also, the United Nations would have the difficult task of balancing the risks and benefits among both more-developed and lesser-developed countries.


Does space really belong to anyone? Again, it took fifteen countries and billions of dollars to build the ISS, and even that does not explore all that space has to offer. Each signatory relied on the expertise, efforts, and resources of the others to conquer this amazing task. Maybe more countries and corporations should model that idea. If so, the technological advancements and discoveries could be endless.

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[1] Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United States. International Cooperation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (last visited Jan. 18, 2017)

[2] How Does it Cost?, European Space Agency (last visited Jan. 18, 2017)

[3] See History of Sputnik 1, available at (last visited Jan. 17, 2017).

[4] Cheng, Bin, Air Law, Encyclopedia Britannica (last updated Aug. 26, 2011)

[5] The Space Race, History (last visited Jan. 18, 2017)

[6] See Nathan Goldman, Space Policy: An Introduction 143-44 (1992).

[7] See Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, opened for signature Jan. 27, 1967, 18 U.S.T. 2410, T.I.A.S. 6347, 610 U.N.T.S. 205 6 I.L.M. 386 [hereinafter Outer Space Treaty].

[8] See Nandasiri Jasentuliyana, Ensuring Equal Acess to the Benefits of Space Technology for All Countries, in The Use of Airspace and Outer Space for All Mankind in the 21st Century 209-10 (Chia-Jui Cheng ed., 1995).

[9] M.H., Financing Space Start-Ups: Throwing Money into Space, The Economist (Oct. 26, 2012, 11:09)

[10] SpaceX Explosion Draws Attention to Insurance for Rocket Science, Insurance Journal (Sep. 2, 2016)

[11] Nola Taylor Red, Space Junk: Tracking & Removing Orbital Debris, (Mar. 8, 2013, 5:00 pm et)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD Protection, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (last visited Jan. 18, 2017)