My last post wished the Hubble a happy 25th birthday and one of my pals joked over Facebook that hey, Hubble can finally get a rental car! I had a funny flashback to Hubble turning 21, and quipping that it could finally have a beer. Why do we project human milestones onto hardware missions? Beats me. Perhaps it's just our simplest measure of the passage of time, serving as easy comparison.
My buddy Mike C. in Austin quipped back on the same string, "Well if astronauts went up to repair it again and share a beer, since it is technically in space, would the age laws from the US apply on missions?"
Would you believe the answer is yes?! Technically, astronauts who imbibe in space would have to be 18 years old on Russian or Chinese rockets, 20 in the Japanese ISS module, and 21 on any various American crafts.
So says Article 8 of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (excerpt): "A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body."
Mostly so this doesn't happen...
The HST is a shared project between NASA and the ESA, but the Hubble is on the American Registry of Space Objects, and also listed by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs as US territory. The same would apply to any of our orbiters or landers.
International Space Station laws apply similar "Location"-based principles. The broad agreement says "...each partner state in this visionary cooperation adventure registers its own part of the station, and consequently can apply its own laws to events therein."
The drinking age would only be a single example. Even patent law applies; if something is invented in the Kibo module, Japan owns the rights.
Legally speaking, we now have a piece of the US annexed to a piece of Europe annexed to a piece of Russia annexed to a piece of Japan in low earth Orbit.
Cool, huh? And it's just the tip of the iceberg. Space Law is developing into such a robust field, all the major Space Treaties, Declarations and Principles are too numerous and labyrinthine to cover effectively here… but consider this:
The UN's master list of all agreements between space-faring nations is now 55 pages long... and those are just the titles! In addition, space exploration is subject to international law, not just the dictates of those with the resources to get there. In other words, all nations have a say in how space is used, even if they do not have launch capabilities.
Those who are curious can visit the UNOOSA site to browse traffic regulations, liability for floating debris and collisions, [lack of] moon ownership and, believe it or not, extra-terrestrial alien rights.
That's not a typo. ALIEN RIGHTS.
Interested in pursuing it as a career? As space tourism becomes a reality, this field will only grow. They even list the many schools offering degrees in space law. Because that's what we need. More lawyers ;)