Attorneys make up new legalese as businesses reach for the stars; spacecraft tort, asteroid mining disputes

Sagi-WSJWhen Sagi Kfir meets people and tells them he is a “space attorney,” they usually think he has a strange way of saying he is in real estate.

He says that when he adds that he is chief counsel of an asteroid mining company, people start telling “Star Wars” jokes.

One common question: Do you represent Chewbacca or Han Solo?

“I’m always the most interesting lawyer at a cocktail party,” says Mr. Kfir, 42 years old.

Jokes aside, space law is a big deal. A range of commercial space businesses including space hotel startups, satellite providers and companies focused on harvesting resources from asteroids, have matured to the point that they require legal services. Meanwhile, law schools are opening new programs and international symposia are being held.

As the first chief counsel of a space mining company, Mr. Kfir is at the forefront of this odd offshoot of aerospace law. From his office in the modified two-car garage of his house in San Diego, Mr. Kfir spends much of his time mulling some rather otherworldly legal issues.

For example, what happens if one space-mining craft accidentally sends a rock flying into another spacecraft? Who pays for the damage? Or if a company successfully mines an asteroid and brings a precious cargo of platinum back to Earth, does it own the metal?

Space law professors have gone even further in positing legal quandaries.

For instance, if an American astronaut were to be murdered by a British astronaut on the moon, it is generally believed that U.S. courts could handle the case. But if the same astronaut should happen to have his pocket picked by another astronaut, it is unclear whether the victim would have legal recourse. The rationale is that there isn’t any precedent to assert U.S. jurisdiction in a minor crime.

Some new phrases for the legal field: orbital jurisdiction, space tourism liability, asteroid mining disputes, spacecraft tort.

“It’s not science fiction anymore,” said Matthew Schaefer, director of the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Program at the Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln. “There is now real money going into these companies. It’s a huge difference from eight or nine years ago when it was all just an idea.”

Joanne Gabrynowicz, a well-known professor of space law and adviser on three federal aviation committees, shows episodes of “Star Trek” to students to help them imagine space law issues. A favorite from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series is “A Matter of Perspective,” where Cmdr. William T. Riker is accused of murder on a planet where all suspects are presumed guilty.

Mr. Kfir’s employer, Deep Space Industries Inc., was founded in 2012. The company has aspirations to send spacecraft to asteroids with the ultimate goal of mining their resources and bringing them back to Earth, or using them for other space projects. The first mining effort isn’t expected for at least five years. The details have yet to be worked out.

Born in Israel, Mr. Kfir came to the U.S. in the 1970s, speaking just a few words of English. His earliest memory is watching “Star Wars” during a school field trip.

“Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with anything that flies in the air,” said Mr. Kfir, whose home office is adorned with models from the movie, a painting of a cartoon rocket and a photo of an Indian yogi called Sadhguru.

At the University of Miami School of Law, Mr. Kfir focused on aerospace law and after graduation he mostly worked on issues pertaining to plane crashes. But after a chance encounter several years ago with space entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson, he joined Deep Space Industries as its top lawyer, following what he said was a “natural desire to explore frontiers.”

His old-fashioned parents were skeptical. “They are more down-to-earth,” Mr. Kfir says.

Later, his prospective in-laws needed some convincing, but his wife, Britta, approved of his career choice. (She is also a “Star Wars” fan).

A video on the website of Deep Space Industries shows an animation of a small ship towing an asteroid through space while a husky male voice says: “We don’t build rockets, we don’t do astronomy. We are explorers and harvesters, makers and suppliers.”

Mr. Kfir runs into a certain amount of skepticism when he starts to explain his company and the emerging commercial frontier in space.

His reminds people of other edgy ventures in the history of business, such as the formation of the East India Company in the 17th century. When it first started out, he points out, it faced great risks from the tumultuous sea, pirates and other hostile forces.

“It takes a while but I can usually convince people that it’s a real business,” he said of asteroid mining.

His days at his home office involve hours of conventional legal work, including the drafting of shareholder agreements and contracts. Mr. Kfir also spends a quarter of his work week advising clients in the aviation industry.

But, otherwise, he says, he lets his mind wander as he ponders a human society spread out in settlements across the solar system and a new era of commerce based on extracting resources from other planets and asteroids.

Mr. Kfir said he plans to travel into space himself when the option is available to ordinary people. He would prefer the moon over Mars because he feels he is already familiar with something akin to a Martian landscape. On weekends he goes out exploring the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near San Diego in a sand-colored 1988 Toyota truck.

“It’s my own little Millennium Falcon,” he said, referring to the famed spaceship of the “Star Wars” films.

This story was originally published by the Wall Street Journal.  You can read the original story here.

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