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.

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.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

Get the quibble.

This week’s quibble comes from the Sept. 16, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked what were the ‘controversial’ call signs for the Apollo 10 spacecraft?

Member Elezar takes issue with a large chunk of the column, suggesting that the phrase Tranquility Base was no surprise to Charlie Duke, the mission control capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for Apollo 11:

Whenever someone mentions that no one knew about Tranquility Base, they NEVER give a citation for it. Considering that Armstrong, Aldrin, and Duke have been quoted about just about every tiny detail about the mission, I can’t imagine no one can list an actual quote from Duke saying it was a surprise, unless it’s not true.In Andrew Chaikin’s book “A Man on the Moon”, he states that Armstrong and Aldin did tell Duke, specifically so he wouldn’t be confused by something he might not understand:

‘For the landing, Armstrong gave some thought to quotes; before the flight he and Aldrin decided that if they reached the lunar surface they would use the call sign “Tranquility Base”–“base” to connote exploration. They told only Charlie Duke, lest the first words from the moon take him by surprise–“Say again, Apollo 11?” And when it finally happened, Armstrong found himself adding quite spontaneously, “The Eagle has landed.”‘

–Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon, Penguin (London 1998), p. 623 (Author’s note to page 206).

Unfortunately, Chaikin didn’t really cite where his information came from either, but he interviewed just about everyone involved with Apollo for that book, and it’s widely considered THE definitive book about the Apollo missions. So, with the lack of citations either way, I tend to believe Chaikin…

I tend to take Chaikin at his word, as well, so maybe it was a three-man conspiracy, rather than just and Armstrong-Aldrin plot. (Well, maybe four-man, assuming Michael Collins was in on it.) Thanks for the clarification, and keep those quibbles coming.