One Half Century and Counting: The Evolution of U.S. National Space Law and Three Long-Term Emerging Issues

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2010

Course Date

spring 2019

Course Number

CSO 460

Course Title

Applied Spaceflight Policy and Regulation


A hallmark of United States national space law is that it tends to follow the development of space technology and geopolitical events. Technology that develops into applications tends to catalyze law that addresses the commercialization of the technology. After the successful launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, the United States addressed the legal void that then existed for space activities by promulgating its own national law and encouraging the global community to establish space law at the international level. This resulted in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act at the national level and in a treaty regime at the international level including, among others, the Outer Space Treaty. Since then, U.S. national space law has continued to develop, catalyzed in large part by technological and geopolitical advances. The historical significance of the early origins of U.S. space law is quite remarkable when one considers that even nations that have been major spacefarers for decades, like France and Japan, did not pass national space laws until 2008.

This Article traces the evolution of U.S. space law from its inception in 1958 to the present and briefly presents some issues emerging for future consideration. It is divided into three main sections. Part I addresses the evolution of U.S. national space law from the 1950s and 1960s to the present and is divided into chronological subsections. The first subsection addresses the 1950s and the first goals of U.S. space law: to meet Cold War exigencies and to develop a legal and physical space infrastructure. The second subsection examines legislation of the 1980s, which introduced commerce as the third sector of space law alongside the civil and military sectors. The third subsection considers how the law developed in the 1980s and 1990s to meet the issues raised by the maturation and application of launch and remote sensing technologies. Regulatory refinement promulgated in the 2000s is the subject of the fourth subsection.

Part II contains a brief discussion of the 2009 codification of space law in the United States Code. Part III then identifies and briefly explores three emerging space law issues that have the potential to affect national space activities in the long term: space law unfolding at the individual state level, licensing of commercial orbital flights, and an evolving definition of the term “commercial.”