After Hours

Geek Trivia: How many countries have sued for damages under the Space Liability Convention?

The 1972 Space Liability Convention allows international lawsuits over spacecraft crash landings. But how many SLC lawsuits have actually ever been filed?

NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) recently garnered some less than flattering headlines when it was revealed the probe's uncontrolled reentry could result in debris impacting populated areas. While NASA calculated the chances of UARS hitting someone as 3,200-1, your personal odds for getting crushed by the school-bus sized, 6.3-ton chunk of beryllium, titanium, and stainless steel were actually about one in 21 trillion.

For you personally, you're about eight million times more likely to be struck by lightning (odds: one in 2.7 million), and 263,000 times more likely to win the Powerball jackpot (odds: one in 80 million).

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that your house (ahem) successfully intercepted the remains of UARS as it returned to Mother Earth -- could you sue NASA for enough money to turn your bad luck into a Powerball replacement? Maybe. Especially if you live in the United States.

The Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946 made the U.S. federal government liable for the actions of its employees and agencies, which pretty well applies to NASA. Moreover, the NASA Authorization Act of 1980 requires all NASA contractors to obtain liability insurance for work performed and products delivered on behalf of the agency, which likely places the UARS developer, Lockheed Martin, within your legal crosshairs, too.

If you live outside the United States, it gets trickier, as you're bound by the 1972 Space Liability Convention (SLC), which expanded the the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (the international document that, among other things, declared no country can own the moon). The SLC says you can sue for damages if hit by a satellite like UARS, but your national government has to file a claim under the Convention on your behalf. In other words, you'd be dealing with diplomats, not personal injury lawyers.


Get the answer.


Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...


Just curious, although nobody I know would consider it, has anyone filed on the aftermath of the Challenger disaster? At my home, in East Texas, it sounded like someone droppped 10 bowling balls on my roof, and things fell off of shelves. No biggie. Did anyone have actual property damage? God knows even if part of it landed on my home, the last thing I would do was sue. I was far too busy feeling shocked, dismayed, and sad. For the first 20 minutes I thought it was a meteor, until CNN cleared that up.


In order to sue the US government, you must first obtain its permission. After it refuses you permission to sue, you must then consider what it will do to you in exchange for the public relations damages caused by your initiation of the suit. Such laws to allow suits are no more than public relations stunts.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

A radio DJ ran an informal fundraiser a few years back to pay off Skylab's littering offense. No word on whether the US State department acknowledged either side of that transaction. :)

Editor's Picks