Nasa / Space

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?

To date, no country has ever sued for damages under the 1972 Space Liability Convention -- despite several space disasters that would seem tailor-made for such cases.

For example, in 1978, the Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 954 spread nuclear debris over 15,000 square miles of Canada's Northwest Territory. It took the assistance of U.S. Nuclear Emergency Search Teams to collect the plutonium-infused debris and dispose of it properly. In remote Canada. In winter. (Read: This was not cheap.)

Intense negotiations between Canada and the Soviet Union were required to secure a meager $3 million payout, though the USSR likely paid that sum rather than risk a much higher judgment if Canada invoked international rulings under the Space Liability Convention.

In 1979, portions of Skylab landed in the Australian shire of Esperance, leading to the local government slapping a fine of $400 on NASA for littering. As the shire had no international standing, the SLC was not invoked (and the fine has never been officially paid).

Perhaps the most likely candidate for a Space Liability Convention suit predates the SLC and the Outer Space Treaty by a few years. In 1964, a U.S. military navigational satellite, Transit-5BN-3, failed to reach orbit. Upon reentry, the satellite's plutonium power supply was compromised, spreading more radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere than all preceding nuclear weapons testing combined. It was this accident that convinced the United States to abandon nuclear-powered satellites altogether.

If the SLC had been around in 1964, you can bet more than a few countries would have slapped some damage claims on the United States. Here's hoping the SLC's never-been-used streak continues, because we'd hate to see the accident that finally makes it worthwhile.

That's not just some spine-tingling space-related speculation, it's a litigiously limited-liability line of Geek Trivia.

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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. :)

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