Sept. 23, 2021

An Out-of-This-World Lawyer Making Good Use of Space

Thousands of kids have likely dreamed of working for NASA as an astronaut. But how many science fiction-loving youngsters dream of being a NASA lawyer when they grow up? Meet Laura Montgomery. 

Although NASA didn’t end up on her CV, Laura spent more than two decades as a space lawyer with the FAA. Now in private practice, she specializes in regulatory space law, commercial space transportation, and the Outer Space treaties, while teaching space law at Catholic University.

During her years as FAA counsel, Laura helped draft regulations for space launch safety, explosive siting, and commercial space tourism. But she explains how this niche area of law really includes all areas of law, including property law (space mining) and criminal law (US criminal justice jurisdiction extends to outer space).

Join us on this episode as Laura spins fascinating tales of her experiences as a space lawyer and a science fiction writer. She has 16 titles in print that showcase her deep space knowledge and sometimes feature space lawyers in her casts of characters.


Guest Insights

  • Cultivating a love for science fiction books as a foreign service kid in Thailand. [02:49]
  • Envisioning a law career with NASA, instead of as a science fiction writer. [04:48]
  • First job in administrative law led to satellite clients. [06:27]
  • Explaining the different emphases of the FAA, FCC, and the NOAA. [07:44]
  • Intricacies of FAA licensing for companies launching into space. [08:36]
  • Describing the two areas of space law. [09:19]
  • Space contract law: Representing launch operators in the FAA licensing process and handling waivers that prevent the various operators from suing each other in case something goes wrong. [10:25]
  • Flight crews must sign an agreement acknowledging the risks including death. [11:50]
  • Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, and the private sector. [13:26]
  • Space property law: Space mining as private property. [17:28]
  • Space tort law: When space items crash into each other. [18:35]
  • Space criminal law: US extends criminal justice jurisdiction to outer space. [19:51]
  • How space law is changing in response to private space ventures. [20:19]
  • Congress allowed space to have its “barnstorming” era and didn’t overly regulate private space ventures at first. [22:49]
  • Loving the commercialization of space travel because it allows the rest of us to do really cool
    [24:19]
  • Attending a space launch. [25:36]
  • Pretty good diversity in space lawyer field, about 50 percent women. [26:56]
  • Didn’t need a background in STEM for space law, just a willingness to ask a lot of questions. [27:28]
  • Helping draft the Launch Safety Rule, and its importance to safety on the ground. [29:09]
  • Testifying before US Congress and the United Nations as an FAA representative. [31:02]
  • Writing 16 science fiction titles since 2013, incorporating space vehicle knowledge and space lawyers in her plots. [32:17]
  • Thoughts on the space race, and how the private sector will likely get to the moon and
    Mars more efficiently and cost-effectively. [34:57]
  • Thoughts on Jeff Bezos’ wish to move manufacturing to space. [35:44]
  • “Gravity” as the most accurate movie about space. [37:17]

Links From the Episode

Transcript

[00:00:00] John Reed: I find it fascinating that all the laws in the entire world — I'm talking about, the man-made ones — are based on four core concepts. From international treaties to buying a pack of gum, from a car accident to murder. There are only four types of law that apply: contract law, property law, tort law, and criminal law. That's it. 

[00:00:24] I just condensed law school into two paragraphs. No tuition, no student debt. You're welcome.

[00:00:31] Way back when, two people (I'm guessing it was two, but it could have been more), they agreed that an object or a section of land could be owned. And another group, maybe even the same one, decided there should be rules for people in their communities to respect each other and their individual and common possessions. Civilization is defined as a society governed by law. In my mind's eye and maybe yours, too, the idea of civilization conjures images of earliest Mesopotamia (shout out to the Mesopotamians, by the way— they never get enough props) all the way to the major modern cities on earth.

[00:01:09] But here's the thing. We, humans, were already here on earth when we created laws and built civilizations. What happens to contract, property, tort, and criminal law when we take our show on the road and migrate into space? 

[00:01:23] The United Nations Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)— yup, It exists — has declared three fundamental principles to guide conduct in space activities: 1) outer space is the province of all humankind; 2) it should be freely explored and used by all states without discrimination; and 3) outer space should not be appropriated. Nice ideas, but how are those working out? 

[00:01:54] Let's find out from someone who knows, like a space lawyer who happens to be our guest today.

[00:01:59] Laura Montgomery is a legal trailblazer who didn't always want to be a lawyer, nor was she always interested in space. But a chance childhood encounter rocketed her into the world of science fiction and travel to distant planets. If there is a typical path one follows to become a space lawyer, Laura didn't take it. She has a far more interesting story to share. 

[00:02:21] Today, she teaches space law at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, and maintains a private practice devoted to regulatory space law with an emphasis on commercial space transportation and the Outer Space Treaties, which sounds totally amazing. 

[00:02:36] Laura, welcome to Sticky Lawyers.

[00:02:38] Laura Montgomery: Thank you, John. It's a real pleasure to be here. 

[00:02:41] John Reed: I want to go back and have you tell us about your upbringing because that is where an interesting story begins in and of itself. 

[00:02:48] Laura Montgomery: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Well, my upbringing. I'm a foreign service brat and when my family was living in Northern Thailand in Chiang Mai, the U.S. Air Force gave the library, the school library, a whole lot of books, including a ton of science fiction. And that is how I came across Robert Heinlein's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress." And that's when I switched from being a horse-crazy girl to being a space-crazy girl. 

[00:03:17] John Reed: Besides Heinlein, were there other science fiction authors in that collection of books that the school was given? 

[00:03:22] Laura Montgomery: Oh, sure. Yeah, there were a lot of anthologies with all sorts of weird things in them. But also, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov. What wasn't there, when my parents went to Bangkok, I would ask them to buy me more. So that worked out very well for me. 

[00:03:37] John Reed: What was it about those books, those authors, that captivated you? What about their subject matter just gripped you? 

[00:03:46] Laura Montgomery: I think the fact that outer space was still there. You know, there was a new place to go. I had grown up moving around the world due to my dad's job. And maybe the thought of there being places that no one's really visited yet was kind of cool. Needing more frontier, I think, is an important part of the human psyche. And I think I must've felt it because outer space was really neat. I was particularly fond of Robert Heinlein because he has this worldly romanticism to his stories. It really appealed to me both as a youngster and even now. I still read one or two of his books every year. So, he was quite the inspiration for me.

[00:04:30] John Reed: Stranger in a Strange Land still sticks with me as well. I grokked it. I understand it. 

[00:04:35] Laura Montgomery: Yeah. Yes, exactly.

[00:04:38] John Reed: With this new love that you developed around these books, around this genre, how did that inform your career aspirations? 

[00:04:48] Laura Montgomery: At first, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. And then when I went away to college and got a little bit more into the real world, I realized I probably needed to be able to feed myself. So, I thought, “Well, what is another good job that I could do?” I do like to write, and I do like to argue, and I decided that law school was a good place to go. Since I'm not a science person, I thought, well, I could maybe work for NASA as a lawyer. So that's what led me on the path to law school and or legal career was the hopes of doing space work.

[00:05:21] John Reed: You just said, "I could work for NASA." Did you know that there was a space law field? Or were you just thinking, I want to work for that employer, and I would be a lawyer doing space work if I worked there? 

[00:05:35] Laura Montgomery: I'm trying to remember if I thought there was a space law field. I definitely had just at least a very myopic, “I want to work for NASA” view. When I got to law school, I must've had some clue because — it was a long time ago, John — I made sure to take Law of the Sea because that seemed analogous. And I took public international law because I knew there were treaties and administrative law. I think I must've known about some of the regulation going on at that point. Or I was just extrapolating very successfully. I'm not sure which I should give myself credit for, but I did make sure to take classes in those areas because I thought they might help.

[00:06:13] John Reed: For a niche that didn't really exist, certainly not as much as it does today, that was pretty progressive on your part to understand all those things and shape your curriculum around that. What was your first job out of law school? Did you get to NASA? 

[00:06:27] Laura Montgomery: No, I didn't. I actually did get to interview with them for an internship one summer, but then they didn't hire for that summer. So that was very sad, but I did wind up going to a firm where one of the partners had some satellite work. And so, I was very excited to go there. And when I got there, the guy had left. I worked for a Cleveland-based firm, and I did administrative law there. It was pretty much a split between telecommunications and black lung. So, I learned a lot of administrative law, which was very useful for me in space law, but it was not exactly what I was looking for. Fortunately, at one point, a client came through the door who had a bunch of earth stations on buildings. And they were pointed at a satellite that the FCC wanted to move, to make way for an HBO satellite. And we were part of a small band that contested this relocation. So that was my first actual space law work, and then I did their licensing work for a number of years after that. 

[00:07:31] John Reed: You mentioned NASA, of course, and that is an agency. Could you explain which federal agencies oversee space regulation, and how that may have changed since you entered the practice?

[00:07:44] Laura Montgomery: There's the Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates launches and re-entries and spaceport operation. The Federal Communications Commission regulates satellite telecommunications, so transmissions to and from the United States via satellite. And then the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In addition to having weather satellites, it also regulates remote sensing satellites, which are where you take pictures of your home planet. And because of national security and privacy considerations, the imaging, as it's called, is regulated by NOAA. I worked for the FAA, so transportation is my field. 

[00:08:32] John Reed: And where does the Department of Defense fit into this mix? 

[00:08:36] Laura Montgomery: Well, I think of both NASA and the Department of Defense as operators. They have their own satellites on orbit. They operate them. NASA launches its own rockets, although that's one of those complicated legal issues because they always hire a contractor to go launch for them. So, it's a question of whether it's independent enough of NASA that the launch operator needs an FAA license like with Space X taking things up to the space station. If it were being operated by NASA, then no license would be required. 

[00:09:09] John Reed: When someone (lawyer or layperson) asks you what space law is, what do you tell them? How do you define that discipline? 

[00:09:19] Laura Montgomery: I have a fancy way of saying it depends. I always say, you know, space is a place. All fields of law can be used in space law. Contracts, procurement, administrative law, national security issues, all sorts of things. Nonetheless, I will say that there's two big areas, which I think we can say space law certainly encompasses. And that's the Outer Space Treaties, of which there are several. And then there's also U.S. regulatory law, where you do have these three regulatory agencies overseeing space activities of various kinds.

[00:09:57] From my perspective, space law is very regulatory, but if you talk to someone who works for DOD or NASA, space law might look a lot more like procurement law, federal procurement regulations, the federal acquisition regulations, those things. And then of course, there's international law aspects for people who are dealing with other countries as well. 

[00:10:20] John Reed: Of course, not naming names, but what types of clients do you represent in your practice? 

[00:10:25] Laura Montgomery: Mostly, I represent launch operators in terms of any strange legal issues they have with the FAA licensing process and also with regards to all of the reciprocal waivers of claims that launch operators and others have to sign with each other, where they agree to be responsible for their own damages and not sue each other. 

[00:10:49] That encompasses the launch operator, the satellite operator. Because for the unmanned vehicles, you put the satellite on top, pointy end up, and those two sign an agreement with each other. And they also signed an agreement with the U.S. government. So, they all agree not to sue each other for damages arising out of the launch.

[00:11:08] If your launch is manned, then the people on board also have to sign waivers of claims with the U.S. government and the launch operator. And so, you want to structure these so they apply to the estate of the person because if something goes wrong, it could go really wrong.

[00:11:27] I worked on those regulations when I was at the FAA, and I have some expertise in that area. I've been asked to consult on those now that I'm outside of the government as well. 

[00:11:38] John Reed: I have to imagine that for manned flights, the crews don't have a lot of bargaining power. It's either you sign the document, or you don't go. Is that pretty much a fair representation? 

[00:11:50] Laura Montgomery: No, it's, it's even worse than that, John. It's required by law. There's three categories of people on an FAA license launch or re-entry. One is the crew and, if they want to work, they have to enter into whatever contractual agreement they have with the launch operator.

[00:12:12] But --and here's the worse part -- the FAA's regulations require that crew and space flight participants be told that the vehicle they are about to go on is hazardous, that the U.S. government has not certified it as safe, and that there are unknown hazards, which we might not even know about, and you could die or be disabled and other horrible things.

[00:12:40] The space flight participant has to agree not to sue. The crew member has to be advised of all of these hazards. And then I think workers' compensation laws apply. 

[00:12:52] John Reed: Employment law in space. 

[00:12:54] Laura Montgomery: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And then there's government astronauts, and those are people who work for NASA, the Air Force, or somebody or some other government agency or NASA's international partner astronauts for the International Space Station agreement. So, they don't have to sign these waivers and they don't have to be told it's dangerous because NASA and others have assured us they already know that. And gotten even far more extensive briefings on the hazards involved than are required by FAA regulation.

[00:13:26] John Reed: Private sector has always been involved in space exploration, but primarily as a vendor to government operators and programs, at least in the U.S., and from how you've described federal statutes and international treaties, it's really government activities in space that the law seeks to regulate. Is that a fair depiction? 

[00:13:50] Laura Montgomery: For the treaties, yes. Mostly, they refer to the states' party to the treaty. So that means the government agencies. The Outer Space Treaty itself, which is the granddaddy of the space treaties, was signed in 1967, and really there was only governmental activity and not a whole heck of a lot at that point. But there were a couple points where the treaties recognized the possibility of private actors in space. So, Article VI, for instance, of the Outer Space Treaty requires that the countries regulate, supervise, and authorize their nationals in outer space.

[00:14:25] You correctly pointed out that NASA, for instance, uses commercial vendors, but again, historically NASA has been so involved, so substantially involved in the operation of these vehicles that they're effectively directing the control of the launch. For those launches, no FAA license is required. But if you're doing something and NASA's just the customer, then they need a FAA license. It's more like a taxi for NASA.

[00:14:57] John Reed: And the whole private commercial ventures into space, that's changing the whole landscape. 

[00:15:02] I'm curious. China went to the moon in December 2020. There are ongoing talks about a Mars voyage. There's even discussions about Canada as a — I read an article — Canada as a future leader in space mining. Can you give us a primer about property law in space? Who can own what?

[00:15:22] Laura Montgomery: Well, under the Outer Space Treaties, which have been signed by, I'm pretty sure, almost all space-faring nations, everyone agreed under Article II that countries couldn't appropriate land by claims of sovereignty or other means. Clearly, the United States didn't claim the moon when it planted the flag there. 

[00:15:47] Now, a lot of people read this to also apply to commercial actors. And I don't quite understand the logic of that because I think that nation-states are different entities from our citizens. Even when I worked for the FAA, the government didn't just go pay my mortgage because we were the same person. We weren't. But some people do point out that Article VI says, "Hey, the obligations in this treaty, you know, private activity has to be consistent with it." So, to my mind, that means that some country couldn't use a private corporation as like a sham, as a front for buying land on the moon. There's this whole question of there's no sovereignty, so there's no one up there to grant title to land. And there is a question as to whether private actors could own land. I think they can, and I would rely on our own tried and true common law principles from days of yore. They're tested by time — they apply on Earth; they could apply on the moon. And start looking at what portions of adverse possession might help us. The one element of adverse possession that you might not need to employ is going to be adverse because you could go up there and start living in a lunar rille and doing whatever it is you do there. After X number of years, you could say, "This is mine. I've been in possession of it continuously, openly.” I mean, assuming you put out a mailbox, so people know you're there. And so, there are ways you could do that without having a sovereign nation involved.

[00:17:28] And then there's two other elements of private property in outer space. And one of them is mining. And in 2015, the United States Congress passed the law recognizing that entities that have extracted resources from outer space, including celestial bodies such as the moon, are obviously the owners of it.

[00:17:48] And then if you take up objects and put a satellite up there, it is treated as yours. There's a provision in the treaties that says an object's presence in space, doesn't change its ownership interests.

[00:18:02] So it's pretty ordinary except for the whole land question. 

[00:18:07] John Reed: We're going to take a short break. And when we return, we'll hear more about Laura's accomplishments, real and fictional. Stay with us.

[00:19:07] We are back with space lawyer Laura Montgomery. We've talked about contract law and property law in the context of space. The two other basic food groups are tort and criminal law. Are there any real-world, I guess I should say real off-world, examples of tort and criminal law? 

[00:19:28] Laura Montgomery: I guess tort might be where you could find examples more productively because every now and then things do crash into each other, up on orbit. There was the Russian nuclear item that fell in Canada and various arrangements get made between the countries as to who's going to pay for what, but the United States does actually extend criminal jurisdiction to outer space based on its nationals and the vehicle. If someone in space were to kill an American citizen, the U.S. would claim jurisdiction over that crime. 

[00:20:09] John Reed: Elon Musk and Space X, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. I’ve got two questions I want to ask about the space billionaires. First, how is the law changing, if it is, in fact, changing to reflect space tourism and, for lack of a better term, first-party commercial activities in space? 

[00:20:29] Laura Montgomery: In 2004, Congress changed the commercial Space Launch Act because of the Ansari X Prize, this prize that was offered to anyone who could take a rocket to 100 kilometers with the capacity to carry three people, and it would be privately developed no government money. 

[00:20:52] Early in this century I was working at the FAA, and those of us on the space side, I was in the Office of the Chief Counsel, but there's a part of the FAA called the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. And it's much smaller than the rest of the FAA. All of the space people were very excited about the Ansari X Prize because people kept coming in to talk to us about getting licenses so that they could participate in this. And we were like, "Oh, you're so cool. And, Oh, look! You have wings. Hey, maybe we should talk to our colleagues in the aviation side." Because some of them did have wings. They had rockets and wings. We kept trying to get them to come to our tabletop exercises, and they didn't always show up. It was like no one came to our reindeer games. But then this fellow named Burt Rutan came on the scene. And he said, "Hey, I think I know how to win this prize."

[00:21:43] And suddenly all the aviation people were coming to our tabletop exercises because Burt Rutan is apparently this aviation genius who helps people build their own airplanes by selling kits, where you could build an airplane and flight it yourself. And so, if he was thinking he could win the X Prize, everyone else thought we better pay attention. And guess what? He did win.

[00:22:06] While he was getting ready to win and everyone was working feverishly away, lobbyists were also working feverishly away. They were up on the Hill saying, "Hey, some of us have wings and we want to be regulated by the space people, because we think that's better." Some of them were like, "Hey, we have wings, and we don't want the space people even talking to us."

[00:22:27] So it was all very exciting. And in the end, definitions were passed for suborbital rockets. And that's where Burt Rutan's vehicle fell, and he won the X Prize and then he licensed his technology to Virgin Galactic. And then all the other space tourist people came along as well. 

[00:22:49] But that is when Congress passed the laws saying "We have to have some requirements for these people, but it's so early in the development of commercial space tourism, we don't want unduly burdensome regulation. Just like aviation had its own barnstorming era where people were free to experiment, we want space to have its barnstorming era. So, we're going to say that for the next five years, the FAA is not allowed to write regulations that would protect the people on board. Because we had done economic studies, and we thought there were going to be like 10,000 of these flights in the next five to 10 years. That was wrong, but that's what we thought. 

[00:23:33] And so Congress thought it, too. So, they kept extending what we called "the moratorium" on regulation to protect people on board. But when we passed the regulations, there are some in there that protect the crew, on the grounds that protecting the crew is protecting the flight safety system. Because they are the people who keep the rocket from landing on the public on the ground and protecting the public on the ground has always been part of the FAA's safety charge from Congress.

[00:24:05] John Reed: So, my second question, is with your love of science fiction, what has been your personal reaction to this growth and activity in private commercial space activity, space tourism, etc.? 

[00:24:17] Laura Montgomery: I think it's fabulous. I've always been very pro-market, pro-commercial activity because I think that's how the rest of us get to do really cool things. I mean, when you look at the internet, sure, it was started as a government project with government funding. But it didn't reach the rest of us, and it didn't become so amazing and affordable and amazing until the private sector got a hold of it and started using it. There's so much we can do with it now because it's commercial. And I think the same will be true of space. We've had a lot of years of government going to space and coming back in very, very limited numbers and it would be really great if more of us got to go.

[00:25:01] Just going to a hundred kilometers or the edge of space is like $200,000. But eventually, it will be less. So, I think the commercialization is great and I want all those billionaires to go spend money on space and keep doing it. And then the rest of us will get to as well. It'll all reach out just like televisions, become more affordable. 

[00:25:28] John Reed: With the types of clients you represent and where you've worked in your career, how many launches have you attended?

[00:25:33] Laura Montgomery: Not enough. When I first started at the FAA, they sent me to a launch so that I could see what was going on instead of just like imagining it. And that was a great several days. And I actually got to see a launch, because launches don't always happen, when they say they're going to. So, I got to see one and I think it took place at like 2:00 AM, and I was a couple miles away from it in the bleachers. It was an Atlas IIAS, and it was taking up an Intel satellite. And when it took off, the whole earth vibrated. You could feel it in your bones. And the sky turned bright orange, bright as day. It was beautiful. Absolutely, utterly beautiful. And if anyone ever has a chance to see a rocket launch, they should take it. It's really, really cool. I've seen a couple other smaller launches as suborbitals, but they're the kind where you're, like, you're looking at it on the pad and then you're not. It's just gone. But I did get to see that one Atlas long ago. I'll never forget it. 

[00:26:40] John Reed: Putting aside any debates about gender disparities in scientific fields and STEM education in underserved communities, we are seeing increasing diversity amongst astronauts, especially in this first graduating class under the Artemis program. What is the composition and complexion of the space lawyer community? 

[00:27:00] Laura Montgomery: I'd guess it's over 50 percent female just based on my friends and colleagues. There's a lot of women in this field and there's a lot of enthusiasm from younger lawyers, which I think is great. I know that the people who interned with me when I was at the FAA, many of them managed to get work in the space field, and I'm really excited for them. I'd say diversity is pretty good. 

[00:27:28] John Reed: One thing that stands out about your background and training is the lack of formal engineering or scientific education. Is that something you wish you had or that you think would have assisted your space law career somehow? 

[00:27:42] Laura Montgomery: Yes, it would have been good, but you don't have to. Just like any lawyer needs to learn where the mop was when the person in Walmart tripped over it, you need to know your underlying facts, regardless of what kind of law you practice. In my field, I had to learn all sorts of things about how to destroy rockets. Stringing the explosives up the side of various stages, command receiver decoder, and all these other little things whose names I've forgotten, but I had to learn all of that at a certain level in order to write regulations properly, to help draft the regulations. And it really was a job for the joint legal and engineering team because the engineers don't write regulations with legal concerns in mind. A philosophy major such as me didn't know how to destroy a rocket, but I learned a lot about it.

[00:28:37] You can. So, you know, any lawyer will tell you, "I didn't know a whole lot about this." And it's some narrow portion of something that they were litigating or writing a contract or whatever. And so, you can learn it, but boy, you gotta be willing to ask questions. 

[00:28:54] One of my proudest moments was when someone said, "Oh, I thought you were an engineer." But no, I just keep asking questions until I understand it well enough to be able to write the rules.

[00:29:07] John Reed: Speaking of great accomplishments. One thing I'd like to have you talk about is the Launch Safety Rule and your role in that. 

[00:29:14] Laura Montgomery: That was a really big rule, and that took us several years to write, and, um, that one was 800 pages long, Times New Roman 12, double spaced. As I mentioned previously, because America is a great country, you achieve safety for rockets by blowing them up. So, if your unmanned rocket is going off course, you don't let it go so far of course that it could hit land and people. That flight safety system, as they call it, is really a thrust termination flight destruct system, has to be really reliable. The rocket itself is not as reliable as an airplane, but that safety system has to be, and there's all sorts of different requirements. You've got design requirements, you've got flight safety analysis requirements, like, well, how far off course can we let it go before we destroy it? Or how close do we let it get to another continent before we destroy it? And other good questions like that. Risk assessments, everything.

[00:30:15] And then when we published it as a proposal, industry hated it. Then we published another version of it. And then we finally published the final rule. And in fact, it has been revised again in the time since I left. 

[00:30:27] John Reed: It talks about the mechanism for the destruction. Is it something that has to be automated in the construction or the design, or is it human-controlled? 

[00:30:35] Laura Montgomery: Well, in the United States, it's human-controlled. So there's a guy on the ground and this old flight control officer who pushes a button. In the former Soviet Union, they did not trust anyone to destroy that much money. So, their thrust termination system is autonomous. It's computer-controlled.

[00:30:53] John Reed: You've also addressed the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, which is something very few people get to do. What were the topics you were addressing? 

[00:31:02] Laura Montgomery: Well, at the UN, this was when I was still at the FAA, I was there to talk about how the FAA is able to regulate rockets perfectly fine without having to identify where outer space starts. So, there's this constant pressure from the academic community, maybe from insurers to define outer space's location. Well, the United States government is not interested in committing to such a definition because why do that when you don't have to, especially when things are going on over our country, we want to say our sovereign airspace goes up way high, but let's say we're flying over someone else's country. Maybe we don't want to say it goes up that high. So, until we have to, we don't want to decide something in a vacuum as it were, no pun intended.

[00:31:56] And then when I testified to Congress, I was asked to talk about what the Outer Space Treaties require and mean, and also how much regulation they require, how much regulation the U.S. government should engage in.

[00:32:13] John Reed: We've had the pleasure thus far of speaking with Laura Montgomery, the space lawyer. I want to see if we can talk to Laura Montgomery, the science fiction writer for a while. You've written 16 books and short stories and novelettes — 16 titles, let's say — since 2013, and the most recent called "The Gear Engages" was published July 18th, 2021. Is this the realization of your dream from high school? Have you, have you gotten to have your cake and eat it too? You got to be a space lawyer, but you've also gotten to be the science fiction writer that you wanted to be?

[00:32:46] Laura Montgomery: Yes, that's probably true. I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes. I have.  I really enjoy writing, I really enjoy practicing law, and I'm getting to do both since I left the FAA. So, although I started writing before I left, but still, yeah, I would say so. It's fun. 

[00:33:05] John Reed: You clearly write about what you know, including orbital debris and Thailand, but you've also authored books about lawyers. So, what are some of the situations you created for these attorneys of yours? 

[00:33:19] Laura Montgomery: The orbital debris novel "Manx Prize" has an engineer and a space lawyer. And the engineer is trying to win a prize --which guess where I got that idea -- for bringing back a large piece of orbital debris so that it doesn't blow up on orbit. And then she needs the lawyer to help her because there's all sorts of legal issues involved with this, to buy someone else's dead satellite and bring it in, and all sorts of good stuff. And, of course, the romantic subplot, and it's all good. So that was one situation I gave them.

[00:33:53] My book "Mercenary Calling" has our hero is a lawyer who is called upon to defend a starship captain because she illegally left a settlement behind on the planet they went to. And so that's full of law, derring-do and, questions of planetary protection. So, you know, bringing back biologicals from space and leaving people, moving people up there. Planetary protection is another hot issue in the space community right now, so it was on my mind and made its way into the book. 

[00:34:29] That's what I call my ground-based universe. It has all the... there's all the space law stuff. And then “The Space Opera” is a space Marine trapped on a lost medieval colony planet with the early settlers of a planet. Those are my "Martha's Sons" books, my new series. So, I've had a really good time with this and the law creeps into all of it. Even “The Space Opera.” 

[00:34:49] John Reed: It has to, because law is everywhere. 

[00:34:51] Laura Montgomery: Of course.

[00:34:53] John Reed: Let me ask some quicker answer questions, I guess. Should the U.S. go to Mars, back to the moon, both? And if so, in what order? What are the priorities? 

[00:35:04] Laura Montgomery: I'm not an engineer and I've been around this field long enough that I know what I don't know. And I don't know the answer to that question, but I think the United States should continue doing what it started and get itself back to the moon. But part of me doesn't care because I think that the private sector is going to go to both these places and build cities on orbit. And that's going to happen much faster and much more efficiently and cost-effectively in the long run with the private sector. So, they should all go where they think it looks good for their business model. Start mining and building and 3D printing. 

[00:35:41] John Reed: Your answer leads to my second question, which is, after his space flight, Jeff Bezos made, what many believe to be a very far-flung statement that all manufacturing should be moved to space.

[00:35:54] What do you think about that, and is the moratorium going to have to end in order to be able to do that? 

[00:36:00] Laura Montgomery: Well, the moratorium is only on regulation of spaceflight participant safety so that we don't need to worry about. Okay. Yeah, he's been saying that for a number of years, you know, the notion that if we take all our dirty industry to space, earth could become a park, and we can all plant native plants in our yards and restore biodiversity. All right, I said that, not him. That part about the plants. But I think there's a lot to it. You can have robots do mining and it'll be far away from our fragile ecosystem. And I think that's a marvelous thought. I love it. 

[00:36:27] John Reed: What is your favorite TV show or movie about space and why? 

[00:36:43] Laura Montgomery: Well, I really liked “The Expanse” because it's just so much fun. It's a good storyline and it makes you realize that we could get out there and it would all be amazing. It would be really cool if we could go live in weightless environments and terraform Mars and explore the solar system and get to see so much. That would be great. I think it's just a great depiction of the diversity that can happen out in the solar system, ways of life, everything.

[00:37:17] John Reed: What movie about space do you find to be most accurate? 

[00:37:24] Laura Montgomery: Well, I'm basing this on my engineering friends, who said that they thought “Gravity” did a really good job with orbital mechanics and the technical questions. That's relative, of course, because other movies have done such terrible jobs. Like if something blows up on orbit, it is not going to just like fall straight down to the ground like they showed in “Starship Troopers.” That was wrong. It'll just keep going round and round. So, I think going by what other people have told me, I think “Gravity” may be a winner. 

[00:37:58] John Reed: And I've read, also, that “Gravity” best portrays the very real dangers of orbital debris coming in contact with one another. I just saw an interview with somebody at NASA about the warning systems they've had to build to protect crews in space, International Space Station, and others, because of all the junk that's flying around out there. 

[00:38:21] Laura Montgomery: It's a real problem. Yeah. Yeah. And those three regulatory agencies, they have requirements about avoiding the creation of orbital debris. 

[00:38:29] John Reed: I think you mentioned it before, but it sounds like you've already started your next book?

[00:38:33] Laura Montgomery: I started my next book. “Martha's Sons” is a series, and so I've got at least two more books, possibly more than that, but at least two. 

[00:38:41] John Reed: For your trilogy and your other series. Do you write them, not all at once, but in a line? 

[00:38:47] Laura Montgomery: I like to keep going on one thing so that I stay in the world, and I remember what's going on. I have lots of notes and sort of an outline. It's, it's really better to just keep going because otherwise, you might never come back. 

[00:39:03] John Reed: You create these universes literally, and they are so intricate. I would imagine you have to stay in those universes to see the story through.

[00:39:10] Laura Montgomery: That's what works for me. I average about one novel a year and then some short stories and stuff like that. But short stories can interrupt a series, but not another novel in a separate universe. That doesn't work for me. 

[00:39:25] John Reed: Well, Laura, I so appreciate you taking us into space and back without a permit today. There's so much more we could have covered, I'm sure. But I want to give people the opportunity to learn more about you. Where can we send people to find out more about you and your practice and your books? 

[00:39:43] Laura Montgomery: I have two blogs and the space law blog is groundbasedspacematters.com, and my science fiction blog or website is lauramontgomery.com. And my books are all on Amazon and some of the short stories are at other booksellers.

[00:40:02] John Reed: We will be sure to list those links on our website. I appreciate you giving us your time and being patient with me and explaining things that needed explaining and more importantly, showing us what is ahead in space for us.

[00:40:14] Laura Montgomery: Well, thank you. I really appreciate you inviting me to be on, John. This has been great fun.

[00:40:20] John Reed: Thank you. This has been just a real treat for me. 

[00:40:23] And thanks to all of you, our growing community of Sticky Lawyers listeners for tuning in. If this is your first time listening to Sticky Lawyers, I hope you'll download other episodes wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit stickylawyers.com, where you can view episode transcripts, see additional information about our guests, and recommend a standout attorney who might be a future guest. 

[00:40:46] Producing Sticky Lawyers is a labor of love that everyone at Rain BDM is excited and proud to do. Help us spread that love by telling your friends, family, and colleagues about the podcast and giving us a rating or review on our website or on Apple Podcasts or on Google Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts. It would mean a lot to us.

[00:41:06] Until next time, I'm John Reed, and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.

Laura Montgomery

Space Lawyer

Laura Montgomery specializes in regulatory space law, with an emphasis on commercial space transportation and the Outer Space Treaties. She spent more than two decades with the Federal Aviation Administration, and served as the manager of the Space Law Branch in the FAA’s Office of the Chief Counsel, and before that, the FAA’s Senior Attorney for Commercial Space Transportation. Laura has published articles on the Outer Space Treaty, human space flight, and launch safety, and also writes science fiction — including some books about lawyers in space.