By: Helen Vu,

On February 6, 2018, SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket into outer space with a Tesla Roadster attached to it and a spacesuit-wearing mannequin named “Starman” strapped into the car’s driver’s seat.[1] The rocket and the Roadster launched out of Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and are expected to eventually reach Mars after entering into orbit around the sun.[2] This feat was groundbreaking, not only because it involved a convertible hurtling through outer space, but also because it was a private spaceflight company rather than a national government agency that funded the development of the world’s most powerful rocket.[3]

When it comes to competition in the field of space exploration, most people think of the post-Cold War Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.[4] At the start of the 1950’s, people around the world watched carefully to see which country would beat the other to the final frontier of outer space.[5] After the United States effectively won the race by putting the first man on the moon in 1969, the public’s interest in space travel slowly waned.[6] However, at the beginning of the 21st century, a handful of private entities entered the realm of space exploration and began competing amongst themselves to be the company that revolutionizes space travel.[7]

This privatization of space exploration and increased competition will inevitably lead to faster development of technology at lower costs. However, such rapid growth also means that our current body of space law will quickly become outdated and fail to meet the regulatory needs of a newly privatized market. The Outer Space Treaty, an agreement established in 1967 by the United Nations, provides a framework for governance of the shared use of outer space.[8] It was modeled after other treaties dealing with maritime activities and the exploration of Antarctica, and sought to mitigate any risks that accompany the study of new frontiers.[9] Under the Treaty, a state is internationally liable for any damage caused by a space object launched from its territory, even if the space object was operated by a private entity.[10] While this policy leads to a clear demarcation of state liability, imposing liability upon a country merely because it allows a company to launch an object into space from within its borders does not seem like an equitable or feasible solution. Holding a country accountable for its own actions in outer space is drastically different from holding a country accountable for the actions of a private entity. Further questions arise when companies someday facilitate space travel for private individuals who might perform acts while in space that lead to damage. Must a country’s economy face the consequences of what would likely be the monstrously expensive actions of a single person? How could we reasonably expect an individual to pay for the high cost of damages done in outer space?

A possible solution lies in the combination of insurance and indemnification policies. Before Russia’s Federal Space Agency sent the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, into outer space in 2001, the country took out a $100,000 insurance policy on Tito.[11] An additional step could be to contract with private spaceflight companies in advance to ensure that they reimburse the state for any damages that may arise out of the launch.[12] By taking out insurance policies on space flights in addition to entering into indemnification contracts with the countries they launch out of, private companies may be able to mitigate some of the risk that arises out of their space exploration.

Before the launch of the Falcon Heavy, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, stated that there was “an extremely tiny” chance that the rocket could hit Mars.[13] Although the possibility of that happening is almost zero, we will still cross our fingers and hope that Starman and his Roadster don’t cross paths with any litigation-happy extraterrestrial creatures on his journey.


[1] See Tariq Maliq, Success! SpaceX Launches Falcon Heavy Rocket on Historic Maiden Voyage, (Feb. 6, 2018),

[2] See id.

[3] See Nell Greenfieldboyce, SpaceX Set To Launch World’s Most Powerful Rocket, The Two-way (Feb. 5, 2018),

[4] See The Space Race, (2010),

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] See Timeline: 50 Years of SpaceFlight, (Sept. 28, 2012),

[8] Monica Grady, Private companies are launching a space race – here’s what to expect,

[9] See id.

[10] Dr. Frans G. von der Dunk, Passing the Buck to Rogers: International Liability Issues in Private Spaceflight, 86 Neb. L. Rev. 400, 409 (2007).

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See Loren Grush, Elon Musk’s Tesla Overshot Mars’ Orbit, but it Won’t Reach the Asteroid Belt as Claimed, The Verge (Feb. 8, 2018),

Image Source: