The May 22nd SpaceX launch of its Dragon capsule atop its Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station. This not only opens a new era in commercial spaceflight, it also raises new questions about what laws govern private space companies and what legal obstacles may affect future human space travel.
If commercial space carriers' shuttling of supplies to the ISS, as with Dragon, evolves into the ferrying of astronauts and other human passengers into space, then a new set of legal issues will emerge. Space law expert Frans von der Dunk says, "
The next step already looms." That next step involves human cargo, and in our post-Space Shuttle world, only Russia currently has the capability to bring humans to the station and back, which likely will bring a rapid rise in commercial space companies with plans to transport astronauts to the ISS. That would raise a whole new set of legal concerns, including the legal status of the craft, crew and passengers, along with issues of third-party liability.
Under current FAA regulations, commercial space operators are allowed to operate without properly certified craft and as long as their passengers fly under a simple "informed consent" regime that basically waives liability towards such passengers. "But if NASA is going to let SpaceX fly its astronauts, is it going to accept such informed consent?" von der Dunk asks. "That's doubtful.
"While moving from cargo to manned ISS services may seem a small step for business, it requires a major leap for the space lawyers." Maybe we'll have to set up a special school for space law.