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Thinkers from all over the world are meeting next week to argue a hypothetical case. They're lawyers. And the case concerns a traffic accident on the moon. It's the international Space Law Moot Court finals, and law students from South Africa, Greece, India and Mississippi are competing. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: When Alexia Boggs was applying to law school, she considered all the big fields - estate law, tax law. She chose space. Why?
ALEXIA BOGGS: Originally I was looking for a field of law where none of my family could ever seek my help.
HERSHER: Space law isn't that developed yet. It's based on international law, but there's only been a handful of cases actually set in space. So there's a lot that's still up in the air.
BOGGS: Here on Earth, obviously, different countries have different laws for, like, if I crash into you with my car. What happens if I do that to you in space?
HERSHER: The point of the Space Law Moot Court Competition is job training for law students and helping space law experts think about possible future situations.
BOGGS: These competitions sort of imagine realistic problems that could happen in the future and how liability is apportioned and decided and who's responsible.
HERSHER: What? Just because it's in space doesn't mean there isn't boring legal jargon, which brings us to this year's case.
BOGGS: There are two countries, Perovsk and Titan. They're bordering countries. They share a common language and a common history.
HERSHER: Both have space programs, but they have very different reasons for being in space. Titan is doing science experiments on the moon. Their attitude is...
BOGGS: This is for all of humankind.
HERSHER: Perovsk is all about industry. They start a lunar mining operation, which annoys Titan.
BOGGS: So they go with their rover to see if they're contaminating the lunar atmosphere. And they collide.
HERSHER: With a piece of mining equipment. It's a lunar traffic accident.
BOGGS: Now everyone's upset.
HERSHER: Perovsk sues Titan over the damaged equipment. Titan accuses Perovsk of breaking the law by polluting the moon. The answer - who should pay for what and why - is not clear. Rovers don't really carry insurance. And who has the right to use or pollute the moon anyway? Not only is it unclear what the specific laws would be to solve this dispute, but not everyone agrees on the overall goals of being in space in the first place.
BOGGS: It's sort of hard to not say anything controversial in space law because everyone has a different opinion about what space law should do. Should it help us here on Earth with resources? Or should we be sort of more romantic about space? We go and we share and we learn and we explore.
HERSHER: This is what Boggs likes about space law - the ambiguity - which is good because the way the Moot Court Competition works, she and her teammates have to argue both sides. Of course, this case is hypothetical, but the issues are relevant now. Commercial space flight is happening. More countries are launching satellites. SpaceX says it hopes to launch people next year. And that means Boggs' employment future looks bright. Andrea Harrington is the Ole Miss coach and a space law liability expert. In the future, she says...
ANDREA HARRINGTON: I think there's going to be a lot more people traveling on private spacecraft than government spacecraft.
HERSHER: One thing private space companies hate, especially when they're trying difficult things - legal uncertainty.
HARRINGTON: It's hard to get investors to want to put their money into an activity when it's unclear that is still going to be legal and still going to be possible to license and partake in moving forward in the future.
HERSHER: As for whether she thinks the Ole Miss team will win the competition...
HARRINGTON: I hope so. But I think there's no way to predict that going in.
HERSHER: Spoken like a true lawyer.
HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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