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Lawyer to India’s first private moon mission talks space, launch contracts & Manfred Lachs

The law firm TRA has been getting its hands dirty with new technologies

Indian rocket lawyer: Rastogi explains the law in desi bid to reach the moon
Indian rocket lawyer: Rastogi explains the law in desi bid to reach the moon

TRA managing partner Anirudh Rastogi has advised on a so-called satellite launch contract for Team Indus, which is the only Indian team competing for the Google-sponsored Lunar XPRIZE, which has set aside $20m for the first 90% privately-funded company to land a robot on the moon and send video footage of its 500m drive on the lunar surface back to earth.

“We advised Team Indus on the launch contract and on various regulatory matters,” explained Rastogi about the launch contract with Antrix Corp, the commercial arm of the government’s Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which envisages Team Indus launching a lunar lander and robotic rover in a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) operated by the ISRO.

Rastogi is an NLIU Bhopal graduate and Harvard LLM, who had begun his career at Nishith Desai Associates in 2006, and moved to O’Melveny & Myers Singapore in 2008 before co-founding TRA in Delhi in 2012.

“Each launch contract can be a very customised and highly-negotiated contract – these are high value and high liability deals. For example, the spaceX Falcon 9 explosion wiped out Israeli Communications Satellite Amos-6 worth about $200m, and we are not even accounting for the loss of business,” he said about the legal and liability complexities of the mission.

Most ISRO and other launches take up multiple satellites at the same time (one upcoming launch by ISRO in January plans to launch 68 in a single mission for instance). However, Rastogi said that the “interesting thing was that the Team Indus contract is a dedicated launch”.

Securing a launch contract by the end of 2016 is a prerequisite to remain in the running for the XPRIZE, which has an overall deadline of 31 December 2017.

Team Indus’ launch contract with ISRO, as reported earlier this month, is scheduled to take its rover to the moon in December 2017.

Three other teams from (from Israel, the US and an international group) had secured launch contracts before Team Indus, which is supported by Infosys co-founded Nandan Nilekani. The second team to fulfil the moon mission of the competition would win $5m, with another $5m in bonus prizes up for grabs.

Team Indus concluding its launch contract follows the company signing up with French aerospace company CNES, via Indian company Axiom Research Labs, to supply high-end digital cameras for use in its rover.

Space law: Not just any old contract

“It is a very specialist area with extremely high liability issues,” explained Rastogi about the practice area. “There are unique elements to a launch contract.”

"When you do a launch contract, there are very significant liability issues but unlike many other contracts that you do that you attribute liability to one party or the other, in a launch contract, both parties generally waive liability,” he said.

“A launch is a complex transaction involving not only the launch provider and the user, but also the satellite manufacturer, the government, contractors, and sub-contractors, and it can often be difficult to pinpoint liability.

“Also, a launch failure may cause damage not only to the payload and launch vehicle but also to persons and property who may not be even involved in the space venture.

“These aspects call for an additional system of indemnities and insurance commitments.”

That means that there is no liability on the launch operator if the rocket blows up, and likewise there is no liability for the satellite maker either if that should derail a mission, noted Rastogi.

“The risk is very significant, largely unknown and unpredictable,” he added. “It came about largely as a way to incentivise launch providers... and parties to assume this risk.”

How to become a space lawyer

He said that TRA - a firm of 2 partners and 7 other lawyers - was “very focused on new technologies”, where policy and regulation are often very ambigiuous. TRA had mostly moved into the aerospace field from aviation work, having also been active in advising in the drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) space, where there is some regulatory overlap with space law work.

“The way we’ve evolved as a firm, we selectively pick up areas of work where there is a lot of evolution in technology and the regulatory environment, and we develop expertise in that. That’s really been our approach at it,” he said, adding: “The space market has also expanded exponentially with lowering cost of space launch technology and hardware, and opening up of the industry to the private sector.

“A number of aerospace ventures have come about in India in the last 5-6 years, from small-satellite manufacturers to component manufacturers to launch facilitators.”

Nevertheless, the area remained “fairly niche”, he said.

So how can students who want to be space lawyers one day prepare for the area? Would space law moots or studying space law academically potentially help?

“When students talk about space law, they’re generally talking about the public law elements of space law, international space treaties, etc,” said Rastogi. "What is equally important, especially if you want to do commercial work is how the industry operates, you need to pick up on the commercial practice.”

“I don’t think Manfred Lachs particularly prepares you for, or the space law courses particularly prepare for practice. For that you need to be more clued into the industry and commercial practices,” he mused.

“But it is certainly a great start.”

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