I had a fun chat with John Batchelor and David Livingstone about the Outer Space Treaty and related issues on their show Hotel Mars. The podcast is now available on John Batchelor’s site here, where I understand it will remain for a week or two. Just to be clear, I’m sure that I said the Outer Space Treaty was flexible, rather than that it contained loopholes. “Loopholes” makes something sound like a bug, not a feature. Also, the podcast is available permanently on David Livingston’s The Space Show site here.by
I’m looking forward to participating in the Hotel Mars segment of the John Batchelor Show tomorrow night, Wednesday, at 6:30. John plans to discuss the Outer Space Treaty.
UPDATE: It turns out that was the recording of the podcast, which will show up on the site later. I will try to provide a link when it appears.by
All industries have their own lingo. The space business does.
I left my job as a space lawyer at the Federal Aviation Administration last summer. In addition to missing a whole bunch of people, I miss the language. I remember in Scaled Composite’s early days for SpaceShipOne, which is a rocket that launches from a carrier aircraft, I was on an email chain between my space folks and some aviation people. One of the aviation people called the carrier aircraft the “mothership.” With my soul full of joy and gratitude both, I thought how lucky I was to work in a job that allowed me to see some technical dude using the word “mothership.” I’ve been in arguments over whether to call something a “spaceship” or an “orbital transportation vehicle.” (Being a simple kind of gal, I preferred the former because it’s more easy to understand.)
But these terms have nothing on what the guys at the ranges say. A federal launch range is one place you can launch your rocket from. A commercial launch site is another. Following in the footsteps of Heinlein and other science fiction writers, we call them all “spaceports.” But I digress. What do the guys at the ranges say that is so charming? First, there’s the minus count. You know, “3, 2, 1…” Then there’s the plus count. That’s for after the rocket takes off. There’s GO/NO GO and others. There are lightning commit criteria, hazard zones, flight termination systems, black assets, and jettisoned stages. The range is red. The range is green.
The risk criteria are expressed in terms of “expected casualty.” Most of the ranges are run by the military, after all. When the FAA borrowed that term for its own regulations, I asked if we couldn’t use something less gruesome, like, maybe an “isolation factor”? No way. That’s the word. Everyone knows what it means, and this is one the lawyer doesn’t get to touch. I didn’t even get to say “I told you so” for years, because that’s how long it took for someone else to object, and at that point expected casualty was in the Code of Federal Regulations. One of my favorites is “exoatmospheric.” That one’s kind of intuitive and means you’re outside the atmosphere, of course.
Then there’s the MFCO, which is pronounced mif-coe and stands for missile fight control officer. He’s the guy who sits with his finger on the button ready to destroy the launch vehicle if it goes off course. (One of the great things about America is that there are industries where safety is achieved by blowing things up.) We got a bunch of the MFCO’s together to interview once, to match what they did with what their handbooks said they did. The biggest question one other person and I had was what did we call them as a collective? A herd? A flock? A gaggle? Then it came to us. They were a murder. No one else has picked up on this, but it’s still right.
There are other words, mysterious words you think you know because they are in English, and that is your native tongue. But, no. They are used differently, mysteriously, in ways not encountered elsewhere. They are words like “support” and “tools” which mean neither support nor tools. I still couldn’t tell you what they really mean, though I might be able to use them in a sentence.
As a writer I want to use these words to add flavor to the story, to sprinkle little details that add verisimilitude and credibility and make the readers think they are there. It’s a fine line to walk, however, for one must be able to distinguish between those that are beautiful and obvious, like the “minus count,” and those that are just difficult jargon.by
For anyone interested in issues concerning the regulation of outer space, the link to the episode of The Space Show with me on it is at: www.thespaceshow.com/show/20-
The background for the very narrow point I was making comes from Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. It says:
States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.
A lot of people take this to mean that if you want to build a habitat on the moon or mine asteroids you need to find someone in the government to approve you. This is wrong for two reasons. First, the words of Article VI don’t say you can’t go without permission, just that something is supposed to be authorized. In the U.S., Congress requires authorizations for four space activities: satellite remote sensing, satellite communications, launch, and reentry. Until Congress passes a law that says lunar habitats require authorization from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the lunar construction is not forbidden.
Second, this provision of the treaty is not self-executing. It is true the Constitution makes treaties the supreme law of the land, but only if they are self-executing. If a treaty promises that the signatories shall go off and do something to carry out whatever the signatories agreed to, it necessarily requires additional action by someone in the government. In the United States, that someone is Congress. As the Supreme Court noted in Medellin v Texas in 2008, “not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts.”
If you are interested in this topic, I discuss it extensively at my law blog and again in my testimony to the Space Subcommittee in Congress.
I will be on The Space Show tonight at 5:00 p.m. EDT to discuss commercial space regulation and Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty with host Dr. David Livingstone. You can listen at www.TheSpaceShow.com. I’m looking forward to this!by
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will hold a space regulation hearing on Wednesday, March 8 at 10 a.m. in the Rayburn Building. The hearing is titled Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations. I am honored to be included on the witness list.by
I am looking forward to participating this Friday in the Update Conference of the Forum on Air and Space Law of the American Bar Association. I will be on the space law panel in the morning, and will address issues arising out of Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. (Yeah, I know: so much for shedding the sharkskin).by
I’ve loved science fiction since the missionary school I attended in Northern Thailand received a boatload of books from a nearby U.S. Air Force installation. One of those books was Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had already graduated from horse books to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I knew deep in my bones that this book was different. The Heinlein had some realism attached to it, some small level of plausibility. It intersected with my world. It could, anyway. It really could. The book orders to my parents whenever they went to Bangkok switched from ERB to RAH. I loved the nobility, the heroism, and the love of the human race. I relished the observations about people and the world. And I read with grim determination the tutorials on orbital mechanics.
So, of course, I became a lawyer.
Fast forward a few decades to my decision to stop being a dilettante about my desire to write. I wanted to produce a book, one that I’d finish. It took a few years, but I did it. They say you should write what you know, so my first book was full of lawyers. Also, and some may find this sad, the stories running in my head always had lawyers. Additionally, as a space lawyer, I have notions about stuff, and I wanted to explore some of those notions, which was fun and amusing, for me, at the very least. My next book was about space debris, and the main character is an engineer; but, again, it was clear to me she needed a lawyer. After all, how else was I to dispense—in a blithe aside—with the issue of intellectual property rights in a satellite design if there wasn’t a lawyer lying around? (I’m kind of keen on the commercialization of space, so the private sector was taking care of cleaning up the orbital domain in my version of reality.) And if he wasn’t really good looking, what was wrong with me?
All this focusing on lawyers helped me work out a nagging question that I’ve faced during my many years of reading Bujold, Cherryh, Heinlein, and others. That question was always—after thrilling to the amazing things happening in a space story—what were they doing on Earth? Did they really mobilize that fast? Didn’t they all squabble with each other first? Drag their feet? Get it wrong? I have trouble envisioning us getting our act together in the face of an alien invasion. We would, but, first, bureaucracy had to happen. I worked at the FAA for a couple decades, so I know bureaucracy and the first two books have plenty of it.
But there’s more to science fiction than lawyers, and we can look for the pause that refreshes. So, what about lost colonies, humanity spreading to the stars, not keeping all our eggs in one basket, and finding a fresh start. That is still the pull of space. There have to be more worlds out there. Maybe I could visit one. Maybe I could visit one and leave my own kind behind. Maybe I could imagine a world with no lawyers. So I wrote Sleeping Duty, a story of a space marine trapped in a medieval lost colony. He isn’t awakened until three centuries after the lost starship limped to a reasonably Earth-like planet. There were reasons for that, but they are lost in the past, and his main problem is that the people who want him awake won’t let him wake up his wife.
This was a lot of fun. I wrote the first draft in a month. There’s only one lawyer, and he’s only in one scene. Really. But there was a glitch.
One of my beta readers pointed out that soldiers aren’t so unclear in their objectives. He’s not unclear, I protested. He’s thoughtful. He’s thinking things through. Then I stopped. I realized I had written another damn lawyer. The authorial indecision about certain aspects of the plot while I was making up my mind, which were fine to load onto a lawyer, were not good for a soldier. Who knew? As soon as she said it, I recognized what I had done. So I removed that excess of contemplation, the superfluous weighing of variables, and the whole on-the-other hand shenanigans with which I had weighted down poor Gilead regarding his goals. And he came back to life. All was good.
But it was a growth experience, and I do still like my sharks. They’ll be back.
My books: The Sky Suspended (which has an abundance of lawyers), Manx Prize (which has a lot less although there are still several), Sleeping Duty (which has only one and only briefly), and Out of the Dell (which has zero lawyers). No lawyers have appeared in the current work in progress, although there’s a bunch in the half-finished sequel to The Sky Suspended.by
This little story in the Atlantic has been haunting me for days:
When Bing Crosby or Robert Goulet or Carrie Underwood sing of “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” it evokes the biblical Star of Bethlehem, leading the magi to the son of God.
It also evokes a nuclear missile.
The song’s writers, Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, created the song at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in fear of nuclear annihilation. Try listening to the song now that you know that.
The story reminds me of when I first got a gut understanding of how rockets got their start. When I was a lawyer with the Federal Aviation Administration, I worked for decades on commercial space transportation. The Commercial Space Launch Act called rockets “launch vehicles,” so I did, too. Launch vehicles are a means of transport for nice things like communications satellites and weather satellites. They have nice payloads.
There was a fellow in the licensing division of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. He was former U.S. Air Force, and he usually called the vehicles rockets or launch vehicles like the rest of us. I’d been at the FAA a while when I first heard him call them “missiles.” The hair on the back of my neck went straight up.
I don’t know why it did that, but I have my suspicions. I’d grown up under MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and I remember a ferocious discussion of it with other girls in gym class in high school in the ‘70’s. I knew all about intercontinental ballistic missiles, and I knew what nuclear winter was, what ICBMs were. But here was this fellow who’d worked on launch vehicles that didn’t have nice, friendly comsats as payloads. His launch vehicles had different payloads. They had warheads, the kind I’d worried about in my youth, before Reagan, before the Berlin Wall went down, and before I stopped worrying.
When I wrote The Sky Suspended, a novel about an interstellar starship that discovers an Earth-like planet, I knew how fiendishly expensive and difficult space travel is. We hadn’t even returned to the Moon yet, after all. People came to the FAA with really cool plans, and then we didn’t see them again. Geostationary orbit is the farthest we get commercially, dreams of asteroid mining notwithstanding. Knowing all this, I had a credibility issue with what could lead to us spending all that money on a starship. Deep in the back of my brain I knew we’d have to be really, really scared. So, asteroids threatened the Earth, two of them, and math happened.
I’ve worried from time to time that our drive to space grew out of fear, that we yearned for space only because we needed a backup drive for Earth and because we were afraid. Once the children of MAD went where the elves go, humanity would turn inward and dive into its video games, never to surface above Earth’s atmosphere again. The machines would. You need those for video games. But those of us of flesh and bone? We’d stay put.
What heartens me, however, is what I’ve been seeing lately from people younger than me: the children at the New World Institute showing off their lunar and Martian cities, the number of law students and 20-somethings interested in space law. I attribute this to a different factor than fear. They aren’t afraid, but they’re starting to think they can go, that there are whole new worlds out there again, and they might be there for them, not just a handful of government employees. I wish I could attribute it to science fiction (since I love it so), but it’s something else: it’s commercialization, and when some see profit and dollars and rewards for their quixotic, romantic, and heroic efforts, the rest of us benefit, for it means the rest of us can participate, not just the government. Those capitalists want us to give them our money. And we’ll do it if they give us something we want.
When I first started at the FAA, I got to see an Atlas IIAS launch. It was around 2 a.m., and the whole sky turned bright as day, but orange. I was two miles from the rocket, and still my bones vibrated at the sound of it, and tears came to my eyes at the beauty of it.
I want to see that tail as big as a kite again, but I don’t want to see it on a missile. I want to see it on a launch vehicle.by