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  • Ranjekha J

An Astronaut’s Right to Health – Analysis

This piece has been written by Ranjekha J, a third-year law student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University.

Keywords: health , contract , external system , envoys , health hazard


Health is an important resource that must be optimized for space flight. It is one of the key steps we must take to ensure efficient space exploration. The cosmos is a challenging environment that threatens the human race’s ambition of understanding space and capitalizing on it. As medical developments progress and minimize the effect of space on the human body , an interdisciplinary approach is required to sustain such developments. Law is one such tool to protect the development made to health. A right to health purports to be a protective and proactive mechanism that prioritizes the health of the spaceflight crew. This consequentially ensures that health is not sidetracked and is given the pedestal it demands so as to not jeopardize a mission. An astronaut needs to be at the prime of his health to deal with the pressures that accompany the vision of an interplanetary human civilization. However , there lie some obstacles to that. This paper argues that an astronaut is entitled to a right to health and further analyses the practical difficulties in ensuring the same.


The term ‘astronaut’ is yet to be concretely defined through any space law legislation. As space exploration becomes increasingly commercialised, defining the term ‘astronaut’ through the lens of capitalistic tendencies is important to understand the rights and liabilities of people involved in space exploration. The three international treaties that have provisions for astronauts are the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1968 Rescue and Return Agreement, and the 1979 Moon Agreement. The Return and Rescue Agreement and the Moon Agreement expanded the scope of the term by using phrases such as ‘personnel of a spacecraft’. This has caused a de-escalation of the term through academic literature to include pilots and scientific mission specialists within the ambit of ‘personnel’. There has also been a political innuendo associated with the term, astronaut being associated with the West, cosmonaut being associated with Russia and taikonaut being associated with China. These political innuendos that assign nationalities to a mission that represents mankind as a whole allow us to make a fair inference that there is a political aspect to defining the term. However,

rights given to astronauts, who engage in the collective mission of mankind which transcends notions of state, should be uniform and not conditional on their national identity. In the same vein, Article 5 of the Outer Space Treaty refers to astronauts as the ‘envoys of mankind’. Hence, the rights that are described to them should also be in the same essence.


Firstly, to understand the nature of an envoy’s rights , it is important to elaborate on the function of an envoy. Cambridge Dictionary defines envoys as “someone who is sent as a representative from one government or organization to another”. In the traditional sense, envoys are tools in fulfilling objects of diplomacy between different States. Hence, the very phrase ‘envoys of mankind’ begs the question of what ‘State’ the actors are representing in this equation. Even if NASA sends an astronaut on its behalf to Space, the astronaut acts on behalf of all mankind. The developments he makes in Space impact the whole of the human race and not only American citizens. This places high value on these personnel for which all States are collectively liable to ensure safety. To demonstrate, the Rescue and Return Agreement places burden on all States to safely and promptly return personnel to launching States in case of accidents and emergencies. However, this is not a preventive measure, rather a remedial one. There is yet to be a comprehensive legislation that protects and ensures the good health and safety of astronauts in Space. THE NEED FOR A RIGHT TO HEALTH Spaceflight consists of immense health hazards, of which radiation remains the biggest challenge. As we explore beyond the Low Earth Orbit, there is a sharp spike in radiation. There will be constant exposure to ‘background galactic cosmic radiation. This stems up health issues such as infertility, onset of cataracts, cognitive impairment, and increase in cancer risk. Not only is physical health compromised but there is also a decline of mental health as well. Even though physical health can be protected to a limited extent through countermeasures such as spacesuits, mental health protection through counter measures has proved to be rather inefficient. A report published by NASA in 2010, which studied the psychological impact of spaceflight on crew members through their logbooks and journals confirmed the same. It was observed that crew members were exhibiting autonomization, meaning they became more egocentric. They interacted less with each other and started perceiving each other as opponents. They also demonstrated psychological

closing wherein they reduced their communication to outside personnel. Hence, protecting the interests of the concerned personnel comes to the forefront. This may be done through legal provisions.


Currently there is no space law related legal provision that explicitly establishes an astronaut’s right to health. However, an international standard that could be applied in this context is Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It states “the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Even though this standard does not explicitly lay down the rights innate to it, it is a good starting point. The rights read into this provision may be incorporated into International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement’s Article 11 which requires signatories to develop and approve a Code of Conduct. This Code must be approved by the partners to the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) which provides space for deliberating on the best possible route to adopt. The IGA seeks to enable peaceful partnerships between nations to facilitate space exploration in line with international law. Another way in which this right could be established is through the mechanism of a ‘model contract’. Inspiration for this suggestion has been brought by the Russian Law “on Space Activities” which states that all professional rights and obligations of a cosmonaut would be determined by contracts. This allows for the astronaut to have more bargaining power because the terms of the contract can be negotiated. The rights enshrined in said contract may also extend to the preparation for spaceflight which also has significant health risks involved. National Space Foundation (NSF) also has been enabling right to health in difficult missions through contractual agreements, following the Russian model. Collaborating with health care systems (external frameworks), like how NASA has collaborated with Wyle Laboratories to manage its Countermeasure Development and Validation Project has successfully enabled a contractor-based health care system. External frameworks such as the integration of space agencies with the country’s healthcare system can also enable in ensuring an astronaut’s right to health. To take the example of NASA, they could partner with the National Space Foundation (NSF) which has previously helped in providing the U.S Navy with healthcare during gruelling and taxing missions in the Antarctic. Their knowledge

in tackling with physically taxing environments will greatly aid in developing health standards. However, the disadvantage associated with using the external system mechanism is the decreased familiarity with space law, low flexibility, and “diminished capability to coordinate with the health care research strategy of NASA to produce clinically relevant information so that NASA can provide the highest reasonably attainable standard of health care for astronauts during long- duration missions beyond Earth orbit.”


To conclude, our first step in conceiving a right to health for astronauts is first legally defining what it means to be an astronaut. This is important because, the increasing commercialization of the space sector gives a larger section of humankind access to space. Do all of them qualify for health protection, or is it limited to persons working towards scientific developments? Once the lacuna in the definition is tackled with, healthcare may be provided through external frameworks or contractual agreements. As we embark on more challenging missions beyond the International Space Station (ISS) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO), enunciating on protective and proactive measures in protecting interests such as good health are also important.

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