Colo. Springs attorneys taking on space cases

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Astronauts aren’t the only ones exploring the final frontier — attorneys are venturing into the unknown, too, with tasks such as establishing legal responsibility for space junk and protecting space craft patents.

The practice of space law is growing in Colorado Springs thanks to the prominence of the Air Force, the Department of Defense and government contractors.

The practice was launched when Air Force’s Space Command was established in 1982.

The city is also home to the attorney for the Space Foundation, and some of the founders of the Colorado Space Business Roundtable and Colorado Space Coalition.

Because of recent changes, space law is growing more complicated, with overlapping spheres of state, federal and international law. That’s one reason attorneys say it’s an exciting area in which to practice, particularly since more commercial companies are getting involved in space.

“There’s been a fundamental shift,” said Rachel Yates, a space law attorney with Holland & Hart. “The space program is moving toward more commercial use, and that means the law is going to follow it.”

The commercial aerospace industry grew 12 percent last year, and for the first time, commercial satellite launches exceeded those of the government, she said. That creates new areas of interests for attorneys.

There are the typical business interests, of course — things like patent law, intellectual property rights, signing contracts. But in space law, there are also international treaties to consider and participate in, spaceports to design and insure, and parts of the radio frequency spectrum to parcel out.

“Today, I had a client call about interference to a satellite from a neighboring satellite,” said Skip Smith, a space lawyer for Sherman and Howard who also teaches space law to students at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s law school. “Then I took another call about a question about space law in Australia, which is similar to U.S. statutes. Most countries have built their space laws on what the United States has done.”

Smith is recognized as an expert in the field. An Air Force Academy graduate, he was the first space lawyer for the Air Force’s new space command and for the Pentagon as a whole.

He was around when the Global Positioning System satellites were launched, and helped create policy surrounding use of GPS, now part of everyday life.

“We had to decide if we were going to release it to public use, if it was going to be the same strength signal the military used, what happened if the signal was off and a plane crashed into a mountain?” he said. “At the time, these were issues no one had to deal with before.”

Two new issues that space lawyers around the world are currently handling: space debris and the radio frequency spectrum.

“It’s getting pretty crowded up there,” Smith said. “And more and more countries want to launch a satellite. How do we figure out where they can do it without interference? What if there is interference? Who’s responsible?”

Defunct satellites are still orbiting the earth, in danger of crashing into other satellites, he said, threatening to cause an international incident. Figuring out who’s responsible, tracking the debris field and trying to deal with it are other issues that face space attorneys.

The radio frequencies are another huge issue for space attorneys. There are only so many frequencies that can be used reliably and with every cell phone carrier and digital television company clamoring for more customers, how to parcel the remaining frequencies out is proving to be a challenge.

“That is going to be a huge issue in the future,” he said. “Just huge.”

But a more pressing issue is the export controls that are currently in place in federal law, said Charlie Lucy, another space attorney with Holland & Hart.

“When you go to trade shows, you see satellites advertising that they are ‘ITAR free,’” he said. “That means they’re totally free of any U.S. parts. If we hope to have aerospace companies succeed, we have to ease those controls — make it possible for them to sell parts overseas.”

More international cooperation will hasten the day those controls are lifted, said Lucy, who works for the Springs branch of Holland & Hart and focuses on government contracts.

“I think we’ve pretty much come to the place where we can’t fight wars without space, we can’t do business without it,” he said. “It makes sense to lift those controls to compete globally.”

Colorado is trying to compete — at least with New Mexico — for its share of global space business. With human transport just around the corner, the state is lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration for a certified spaceport at the Front Range Airport. The legislature recently passed a limited liability law that keeps space companies from getting sued if someone gets hurt.

“We dealt with that in a different way when the astronauts were highly trained and worked for the government,” Yates said. “But we have to deal with responsibility and liability if we are sending tourists into space.”

And tourists will be going into space, probably in the next two years, said Smith. Virgin Galactic will have horizontal space into the lower Earth orbit by then.

And will the space lawyer be on one of those flights?

“Only if I can find a way to pay for it,” he said. “That’s going to cost six figures for a very short trip.”