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date: 29 January 2023

Space Law Education and Capacity-Buildingfree

Space Law Education and Capacity-Buildingfree

  • David Kuan-Wei ChenDavid Kuan-Wei ChenMcGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law


Space activities can bring tremendous benefits to global development and humanity. For the safety, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space, activities and developments in the exploration and use of outer space must therefore be guided by the effective formulation, implementation, and enforcement of law and governance. Concerted and quality space law education and capacity-building efforts are necessary for the cultivation of competent professionals, scholars, and next-generation experts who are cognizant of the emerging issues and challenges posed by the proliferation of space activities and actors in the global commons of outer space.

In order to fully grasp space law, it is important to possess a basic understanding of space technology, space applications, and the space environment in which the exploration and use of outer space take place. Not only should space law professionals and scholars be trained in law and have a deep understanding of especially public international law, but the approach to space law education and capacity-building must also be uniquely holistic and interdisciplinary. Hence, education and capacity-building can stimulate international development and cooperation in space activities and contribute to building expertise and capacity in countries with emerging space capabilities.


  • Planetary Science Policy and Planning
  • Space Law


Successive meetings of the global UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNISPACE) have repeatedly encouraged educational and capacity-building initiatives to stimulate indigenous space capacities (United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space [UNCOPUOS], 2016a). Whereas traditional space education and capacity-building focused on subjects related to space STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), in recent years there has been increasing emphasis on education and capacity-building in space law (United Nations General Assembly, 1999; United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs [UNOOSA], 2014). In the perspective of the United Nations, “as space activities and their applications are developed, it is crucial to understand . . . how law and regulation interact with such developments” (UNCOPUOS, 2002).

It has long been recognized that states and humanity as a whole can derive a myriad of benefits from space applications and technologies. The economic, social, and technical benefits of space applications have been long perceived as effective means to further development, alleviate poverty, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (di Pippo, 2019; UNOOSA, n.d.-b). With the global space economy expected to triple to over US$1 trillion by 2040 (Morgan Stanley, 2021), across the globe, there will be an increased demand for legal experts who are trained and knowledgeable in space-related activities and industries. Much legal expertise is needed in as diverse fields as the provision of space launch services, satellite communications, and remote-sensing applications, not to mention the extraction and exploitation of in situ space resources that will become a reality in the years to come. The provision of space insurance and financing to facilitate private space endeavors will also require legal specialists who not only are trained in traditional legal studies, but also have an understanding of the complex regulatory and policy framework of national space regulation.

What Is Space Law?

Space law forms the core of the global space governance framework that shapes and regulates activities and developments in the domain of outer space (Jakhu & Pelton, 2017; Lyall & Larsen, 2018). Core to space governance is a set of binding international rules and legal principles governing states’ exploration and use of outer space. These rules and legal principles are largely encapsulated in various treaties and General Assembly resolutions adopted at the United Nations, of which the “Outer Space Treaty” is the most foundational. There is also a body of space law governing various space applications, such as the use of satellites (“International Satellite Law”), telecommunications (“International Space Law and Satellite Telecommunications”), the use of the geostationary orbit and associated frequency allocations, remote sensing, and the extraction of “Extraterrestrial Resources.” Further, there is a growing body of national space law adopted by a growing number of states to regulate, authorize, and supervise national space activities (e.g., “Austrian Space Law,” “Brazilian Space Law,” “Space Law and China”).

Importance of Space Law Education and Capacity-Building

Education is not just a means to gain understanding and knowledge of the world and dispel ignorance; it is also important as a means of creating responsible and informed global citizens and stakeholders who are cognizant of the importance of coexistence and cooperation in an ever more interconnected and interdependent world. As Manfred Lachs noted, education is the pursuit of knowledge to “help in the search for the solution of problems” (Lachs, 1976). Indeed, the promotion of solutions to “international economic, social, health, and related problems” and the promotion of “international cultural and educational cooperation” are primary objectives of the United Nations (Charter of the United Nations, 1945, Art. 55). The notion of capacity-building is often read together with education and has attracted much attention in recent years. Broadly defined, capacity-building (or capacity development) is

the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world.

(United Nations [UN], n.d.)

The United Nations considers space law education and capacity-building to be “of paramount importance” (UNCOPUOS, 2016b). Developing indigenous skills and expertise in STEM must be coupled with increasing understanding of the legal framework in which space activities take place. An understanding of the interplay between science, technology, and law in this unique domain of human activity will in turn strengthen the “relevance of space law” (United Nations General Assembly [UNISPACE III], 1999). As noted by the United Nations:

The successful implementation and application of the international legal framework governing space activities will depend on the understanding and acceptance, by policymakers and decision makers, of the legal framework governing the conduct of space activities.

(UNCOPUOS, 2016b)

Through its various educational and training programs, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) continually strives to develop and strengthen knowledge and expertise in space science and technology as well as space law, with a particular focus on such initiatives for the benefit of developing countries.

Unique Nature of Space Law Education and Capacity-Building

Legal education has traditionally imparted or examined the world from a purely law-centric perspective. In the face of a globalized world and increasingly complex challenges that transcend any one discipline, a law-centric approach to education is proving outdated and inadequate (Connolly, 2003). This is all the more relevant when it comes to studying and building capacity in space law, as the future success and sustainability of the space sector depend on professionals and stakeholders who have a wider appreciation of interests and issues from “a legal, practical, programmatic, and technical side” (Pecujlic & Tugnoli, 2019). The effective formulation, implementation, and enforcement of laws and the governance regime pertaining to space activities require an approach and perspective on education and capacity-building that cannot be isolated from the economic, technological, and political contexts in which such activities take place (United Nations General Assembly [UNISPACE III], 1999).

Space law is a complex discipline of study and research, and by implication the approach to space law education and capacity-building must be solidly rooted in international law and principles, both holistic and interdisciplinary (Jakhu & Chen, 2017; Lachs, 1976).

Rooted in International Law and Principles

First, as space law is part and parcel of public international law, a basic understanding of the fundamental principles of international law and processes of international lawmaking is essential (Brownlie, 1982; Jakhu et al., 2018). Indeed, the Outer Space Treaty specifically provides that activities in outer space must be conducted in accordance with international law (UNOOSA, 1967, Art. III).

Further, because of the nature of outer space as a shared global commons, space law professionals and experts must be made aware of the fact that there are certain public interests and values that must be taken into consideration and respected in the exploration and use of outer space (Jakhu, 2006). Such interests include the principle that all space activities must be undertaken for “peaceful purposes” (“Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes”), for the benefit of humankind, and have due regard to the corresponding interests of all states (Outer Space Treaty). Particularly for space law specialists and professionals who are advising their respective governments on the national regulation of space activities, it is vital that national laws and policies be adopted in ways that are compatible with the international legal principles, standards, and practices (Dempsey, 2016; Jakhu, 2010). The uniformity and synergy of legal rules, procedures, and standards across the globe is imperative for the sustainable conduct of space activities and orderly governance of this all-pervasive realm of human activity, the potentials of which are only beginning to be realized (Jakhu & Chen, 2017).

As space law is a relatively new subject-matter that is still being progressively developed, its study cannot be approached from a purely law-centric lens. Due to the changing nature by which space activities are regulated, increasingly space governance is being shaped and directed by guidelines that, though not legally binding, are still relevant to the exploration and use of outer space. Such guidelines pertain to the mitigation of space debris (UNOOSA, 2010) (“Space Law and Hazard of Space Debris”), and measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities (UNCOPUOS, 2019). Also of relevance are industry practices and standards, for instance also on the mitigation of space debris (International Standards Organization [ISO], 2019), which states and space operators must consider and, whenever necessary, incorporate into their mission planning and operations. Thus, in addition to studying legal principles and provisions, understanding these guidelines and standards must also form part of the space law education and capacity-building efforts.


In terms of being holistic, the study of space law must be premised on the idea that this unique discipline cannot be properly appreciated or understood without regard to the “intimate interconnection” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.) between space science, technology, law, and the unique nature space environment as a whole. With outer space being a global commons, it is important that present and future space activities be undertaken with a uniquely global perspective. “Global” should be understood in two senses of the word, the first being transcending national and regional perspectives and interests. The second sense of having a global perspective means to fully appreciate the complexity of space law as a discipline, one must have basic knowledge of the fundamental technical, societal, economic, political, historical, and strategic issues and concerns that interplay in this unique realm of human activity. One must also be aware of the potential effects that various space applications, technology, and activities may have across sectors and disciplines (Jakhu & Chen, 2017; UNOOSA, 2017).


Building on the idea of a holistic approach to space law education and capacity-building is the notion that it must also be interdisciplinary. It is vital that there be engagement with and dialogue between the technical and legal communities in the space sector. Facilitating such dialogue has been a “goal of the United Nations since the dawn of the space age” (Pecujlic & Tugnoli, 2019). Space law professionals and lawmakers should develop and possess basic understanding of other fields beyond law and develop skills to communicate with professionals in other fields (Napolitano, 2019; Pecujlic & Tugnoli, 2019).

An interdisciplinary approach to education and capacity-building allows space law professionals and academics to develop the necessary understanding and appreciation that the legal system governing the exploration and use of outer space, like the environment of outer space itself, does not operate in a vacuum. Space law must be formulated and implemented to meet the needs and realities of the space environment and account for the rapidly evolving technologies and applications that are utilized in space. An interdisciplinary approach can further sensitize lawyers to the value and contributions of other professionals who can provide fresh ideas and perspectives for problem-solving.

For instance, the provision of a space launch service would involve more than just legal expertise to navigate the bureaucratic process of obtaining a launch license. Embedded in a typical launch license are intricate technical criteria and conditions for space object design performance, health and safety reviews, and environmental assessment (U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, 2021). Thus, the licensing process would require a basic understanding of technical and engineering issues, and potentially input from scientists and experts who are knowledgeable in areas of expertise that are tangential to the actual licensing application and approval process. Similarly, a space lawyer called on to assess damage occasioned during in-orbit operations may be required to possess basic understanding of orbital mechanics or the space environment to fully grasp the issues at hand and potentially in dispute.

Interdisciplinarity does not just mean across disciplines. Within the legal discipline, there is a need for dialogue and exchange of expertise between specializations within the law. For instance, with the potential for new inventions and discoveries in space, specialists in intellectual property rights are required to inform whether, in the context of space activities, the notion of an invention or discovery being novel, useful, and not obvious (World Intellectual Property Organization [WIPO], 2004) is different from the terrestrial context. The “rational, equitable, efficient and economical use” of the radiofrequency spectrum and orbital slots (International Telecommunication Union, 2021) cannot be effectively and realistically achieved without input from technical and operational specialists who have insider knowledge of, by way of example, what it means in practice and in law to avoid harmful interference. The potential for the outbreak of conflict in outer space requires interdisciplinary dialogue and exchange between experts and stakeholders in various fields of research and study to ensure that the identification and clarification of the law as it applies to military space activities are consistent with the mindset and interests of military strategists and space operators (Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space, n.d.).

Facilitating Space Law Education and Capacity-Building

As the United Nations has noted:

The presence of suitable professionals, in particular in developing countries, who are able to provide legal advice and disseminate information and knowledge relating to space law is . . . dependent on adequate opportunities for education in space law and policy.

(UNCOPUOS, 2016b)

Instrumental to recognizing the importance of space law in shaping and governing the exploration and use of outer space is an adequate institutional infrastructure that can facilitate education and capacity-building in the specialized domain of space law (Jakhu & Pelton, 2017). “At the United Nations,” “Space Law Professional Associations,” and “Educational Institutions and Programs Around the World,” and “Funding and Learning Tools” present some intuitions, initiatives, programs, and tools that further such objectives.

At the United Nations

Of the thematic priorities identified for UNISPACE+50, “new innovative and effective approaches” to education and capacity-building are deemed as a necessary and fundamental pillar of global space governance (UNCOPUOS, 2016c). A key objective of UNOOSA is to promote education and capacity-building through various UN-sponsored initiatives, workshops, and the various Regional Centres for Space Science and Technology Education around the world. Since 1999, a series of United Nations Workshops on Space Law have been held across the globe with the objective of stimulating international cooperation in space activities and helping build national expertise and capacity in countries with emerging space capabilities (UNOOSA, n.d.-c).

In 2014, UNOOSA put together the UN Education Curriculum on Space Law. With input from the world’s leading space law experts and educators, the model curriculum provides a template for “capacity-building on the beneficial uses of outer space and the law applicable thereto” (UNOOSA, 2014). Though originally designed to be integrated into the technology- and science-centered education programs offered by the UN Regional Centres (UNOOSA, n.d.-a), the model curriculum on space law includes core modules on important and complementary space law–related subjects.

Building on the first module that provides an introduction to the international legal regime governing space activities, the rest of the curriculum centers on the international and national regulation of space applications of remote sensing, satellite communications, and global navigation satellite systems, which happen to be the technical space applications in which states are encouraged to develop indigenous capabilities. Despite providing a good template for space law educators to reference, it should be noted, however, that the UN model curriculum on space law has not been updated.

Space Law Professional Associations

Founded in 1960, the International Institute of Space Law (IISL), is the foremost international association dedicated to fostering the study and development of space law (IISL, n.d.). Among its various outreach activities is the annual Colloquium on the Law of Outer Space, which provides a platform for practitioners and scholars all over the world to exchange perspectives on contemporary legal and policy issues surrounding the exploration and use of outer space. Since 1992, the IISL organizes the annual Manfred Lachs Space Law Moot Court, which provides law school students the unique opportunity to develop their analytical, mooting, and advocacy skills through simulated court proceedings centered on a contemporary issue in international space law (IISL, 2021).

The work of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) has been instrumental in bringing together young (ages 18 to 35) legal and other professionals and instilling the benefits of having a multidisciplinary approach to studying and engaging in space (Decoopman & Napier, 2019). Through SGAC outreach and social events, young space engineers and lawyers can interact and educate one another about the fundamentals of their fields of expertise.

Other international associations of note that play a role in fostering space law education and capacity-building include the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL), the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), and the International Law Association (ILA), which all have the mandate to promote knowledge, understanding, and progressive development of the legal framework governing space activities.

Educational Institutions and Programs Around the World

Universities and other tertiary education institutions around the world are particularly effective centers of exchange, education, and capacity-building. UNOOSA publishes and updates a directory of Education Opportunities in Space Law, which lists institutions and countries around the world where space law and related subjects are taught or researched (UNOOSA, 2020). The directory is a useful guide for persons interested in space law education and capacity-building, as it contains information on educational programs offered, qualification perquisites, and fellowship and funding opportunities, as well as links to contact information of various programs and courses.

The first institution of higher learning dedicated to space law, the Institute of Air and Space Law at University of Cologne, Germany, traces its beginnings to 1925. The Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University, Canada, began specializing in space law in 1967 and currently offers a Graduate Certificate for continuing education and development professionals, a Master of Laws (LLM) program, and a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) degree. More recent institutions dedicated to the study and research of space law include the International Institute of Air and Space Law at Leiden University, the Netherlands (1986); the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law (1999); and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, which in 2008 began offering an LLM in space and telecommunications law. Courses in space law are also on offer at various educational institutions and law schools across the globe, including Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Russian Federation. Also of note is the International Space University, which was founded in 1987 in Strasbourg, France, and offers graduate-level space studies courses that integrate the fields of space science, business, engineering, law, and policy for space professionals.

Funding and Learning Tools

To cultivate the next generation of space law experts and scholars, it is vital that there be sufficient funding and stimulated interest in space law education and capacity-building (Jakhu & Pelton, 2017). In providing scholarships and funding for space law study and research, governments, corporations, space stakeholders, and donors can help support and sustain the need for continued education, capacity-building, and dialogue on space law and policy.

With its multimillion-dollar sponsorship spanning over 12 years, the Arsenault Space Law Project at McGill University was the largest sponsor ever to support an educational institution for research and education in space law (Institute of Air and Space Law [IASL], 2021). Its funding supported the education and research of over 60 space law students and professionals from 20 countries across the globe. Not only do scholarships and funding help to produce and disseminate valuable space law knowledge, but they are also helpful in building international institutional partnerships and academic collaboration on efforts to strengthen the rule of law and space governance.

In line with the call for innovative tools in space law education and capacity-building (UNCOPUOS, 2016c), the publicly accessible McGill Encyclopedia of International Space Law is under development (McGill University, n.d.). Together with other valuable online resources such as the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science, the Spacelawpedia will provide law practitioners, academics, and students with an objectively curated online reference resource on key subjects of space law.

The Future of Space Law Education and Capacity-Building

To possess independent and indigenous space capabilities, a country needs to possess the necessary scientific and technical training and expertise and, equally important, knowledgeable and competent professionals, policymakers, and lawmakers who can entrench such space capabilities in space law, policies, and institutions. Space law education and capacity-building initiatives therefore are vital in creating and cementing national expertise and capacity in this bourgeoning field of human activity.

As outlined, space law is an expansive and growing field of law that is unique in its own right. The exploration and use of outer space touches on various economic, commercial, social, geopolitical (“Space Governance”; “International Geopolitics and Space Regulation”), strategic (“Space Security Law”), and even environmental issues. Legal experts and professionals must therefore be educated and trained in an approach that is intrinsically interdisciplinary and holistic, and that differs from the traditional approach to a legal education. Further, in line with the need to promote further inclusivity and gender equity, all education and capacity-building efforts must, as a matter of priority, focus on the inclusion of women, ethnic and cultural minorities, and persons with disabilities.

Though the UN model curriculum on space law provides a good reference guide to subjects relevant to space law, in light of rapidly developing activities and applications, issues and challenges are emerging that practicing lawyers, regulatory agencies, and commercial space operators must be aware of. As space activities and, consequently, the regulation and laws governing this unique field of human undertaking grow, the content of space law and capacity-building curriculum needs to be country specific and regularly augmented to keep it up to date with current trends and developments. With the dual-use characteristics of space technologies and operations, insight of arms control regimes is a perquisite. With increasing proliferation of private and commercial space actors and activities, it is also important for space law professional and officials to have a clear understanding of the legal and policy considerations of the commercialization and privatization of space activities (“Business, Legal, and Policy Issues in Relation to Increased Private Space Activity”).

Space law education and capacity-building provide the foundations for present and future professionals and academics to study, research., and disseminate knowledge that will be beneficial to ensuring that space activities are undertaken in an orderly and regulated fashion. Promoting space law education and capacity-building therefore also furthers the objective of fostering international cooperation and understanding, which in turn is amenable for international peace, security, and conflict avoidance. Instilling a common understanding that space activities must be undertaken for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, will go a long way toward increasing transparency, building confidence, and preserving the long-term sustainability of outer space.

Further Reading

  • Diederisk-Verschoor, I. H. P. (2008). An introduction to space law (3rd ed.). Kluwer Law International.
  • Hobe, S., Schmidt-Tedd, B., & Schrogl, K.-U. (Eds.). (2009). Cologne commentary on space law (Vol. 1). Carl Heymanns Verlag.
  • Jakhu, R., Sgobba, T., & Dempsey, P. S. (Eds.). (2011). The need for an integrated regulatory regime for aviation and space. Springer.
  • Madry, S. (2020). Disruptive space technologies and innovations: The next chapter. Springer.
  • von der Dunk, F. G. (Ed.). (2015). Handbook of space law. Edward Elgar.


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