When Space Junk Hits a Home, Who Pays for Repairs?

Florida incident is 'kind of unprecedented,' space law expert says
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 24, 2024 5:45 PM CDT
Space Junk's Hit on Home Raises 'Unprecedented' Issues
This photo provided by NASA shows a recovered chunk of space junk from equipment discarded at the International Space Station.   (NASA via AP)

It's a question that could appear on a law school exam: If a home is hit by debris falling from space, who is liable for the repairs? The question isn't theoretical for Naples, Florida, resident Alejandro Otero, whose home was hit by debris from the International Space Station earlier this month. He tells NPR that his homeowners' insurance put the cost of the damage at more than $15,000 and that he will be sending NASA a claim for damages not covered by insurance. Mark Sundahl, director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, tells NPR that the situation is "kind of unprecedented," though it is covered by a 1972 international convention on liability caused by objects from space.

Under the convention, "the launching state is absolutely liable for any damage to property or persons that occurs on the surface of the Earth," Sundahl says, but if an American's property is hit by falling NASA debris, "then the international law no longer applies. It becomes a domestic legal issue, and a homeowner would have to bring a tort action against the federal government." NASA has said the 1.6-pound chunk of metal that came through Otero's roof was a stanchion from NASA flight support equipment that was used to mount 5,800 pounds of old batteries on a pallet for release into space in 2021.

NASA says there will be an investigation "to determine the cause of the debris survival and to update modeling and analysis, as needed." With space junk proliferating, the incident should serve as a "wake-up call to policymakers, major aerospace players and the public at large," writes Leonard David at Scientific American. Otero tells NPR that his 19-year-old son was home when the debris hit but wasn't injured. "We feel very lucky and blessed that everyone was OK," he says. Otero says it was "really scary" for the family. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this event," he says. "I hope no one else has to go through this." (More space junk stories.)

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