On March 8 this year, a 2.9-ton pallet of used batteries from the International Space Station (ISS) crashed through the roof of Alejandro Otero’s home in Naples, Florida.

The incident highlighted the growing risk of space debris raining down on Earth. The NASA space debris tore through two floors, landing just one room away from Otero’s son, who was at home at the time.

The Otero family has filed a first-of-its-kind damages claim against NASA for the space debris incident. 

In an interview with IE, Alejandro Otero’s lawyer, Mica Nguyen Worthy, explained that they hope “NASA sends a strong signal to private and public enterprises that when there are legitimate space debris claims, the victims will be adequately and promptly compensated.”

NASA’s space debris near miss

While the probability of any individual being killed by space debris remains extremely low—estimated at one in a trillion—the overall risk is increasing as the global satellite and space industry rapidly expands.

In a recent interview with IE, University of Regina astronomer Samantha Lawler stated that she believes it will take a fatality for regulators to take action finally.

Worthy agreed that the risk of injury is growing, though it remains low. In the case of the Otero family, they narrowly avoided tragedy. According to a statement from Worthy’s attorneys at Cranfill Sumner LLP, the incident could have easily resulted in severe injuries or loss of life if circumstances had been only slightly different.

An image of the space trash that impacted the Otero home. Source: NASA

The Oteros are now seeking compensation for the stress and impact the space debris incident has had on their lives.

“The Oteros made claims under the Federal Torts Claims Act, before filing suit,” Worthy explained to IE. 

“I think the likelihood of there being additional claims for damages resulting from space debris is still very low, and there are very intelligent people—including agencies in various countries—currently working on the space debris problem,” she continued. “[Still], due to the increasing amount of space exploration activity in recent years, the likelihood of damages or injuries has already increased and will continue to increase.”

Space debris victim claims compensation

When it crashed through the Otero home in Naples, Florida, it left a gaping hole in the ceiling. The Otero family’s claim against NASA includes damages for the prolonged and disruptive home repairs, which significantly impacted their day-to-day routines.

“They did not have to move out of their home, but the repairs and the repair process took significant time and were disruptive to their work,” Worthy said. “Their homeowner’s policy covered most of the costs of the repairs to the roof and flooring, etc. But there were still some uninsured losses to articulate in the claims. The Oteros needed legal counsel to help navigate the process not only with NASA, but also with their insurance claim and the carrier’s subrogation of its damages.”

One of the issues raised by Worthy in her law firm’s statement was that of the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. Under that convention, NASA would have been liable to pay for any damages – only if the Oteros were based overseas.

“There are two legal concepts at play in this matter,” Worthy told IE. “On the one hand, the US is obligated by international law and has committed through the Space Liability Convention to being “absolutely liable” for such damages.” 

“On the other hand, the US has only waived its sovereign immunity to allow claims to be submitted against it on the basis of a “tort” action; in other words, through a standard of fault or negligence,” she continued. 

“There is no current mechanism by which a strict liability claim can be made against the US government, so we had to articulate tort claims against NASA in the claims submissions for our clients,” Worthy said, adding that “our firm was uniquely positioned to assist the Oteros because of our experiences with the intersection of aviation, aerospace, and international law at play in this matter.”

NASA’s responsibility

Cranfill Sumner LLP has highlighted that this is a first-of-its-kind claim case against NASA. In its statement, the firm claims that this is an opportunity for NASA to set a precedent for what sustainable, safe space operations should look like.

This is especially pertinent at a time when NASA’s current Administrator, Bill Nelson, has been vocal in his criticism of China’s unsafe space practices. In recent years, China has allowed its Long March 5B rocket cores to perform dangerous uncontrolled reentries

In July 2022, Nelson tweeted that “all spacefaring nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”

As Worthy would have it, NASA now has an opportunity to show that it follows these best practices and takes responsibility for debris damage in the US.

“We hope that NASA sends a strong signal to private and public enterprises that when there are legitimate space debris claims, the victims will be adequately and promptly compensated without having to go through the full legal process and having to prove fault on NASA’a part,” Worthy told IE. 

“Our Aviation and Aerospace group, which serves clients in both the private and public sector was already familiar with the processes in this action even though it is the first of its kind to be submitted to NASA,” Worthy continued. “We hope that by leveraging our firm’s experiences and resources, we can obtain a positive outcome for our clients, and to take the opportunity to have an active voice in the aviation and aerospace community on safe and responsible space operations.”

What is NASA’s response?

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), NASA has six months to reply to respond to the Otero family’s claim. 

In a post on NASA’s website following the March incident, the space agency noted that the battery pallet was originally released from the ISS in March 2021.

At the time of release, NASA officials expected the object to “fully burn up during entry through Earth’s atmosphere,” the space agency claimed. It sent officials to pick up and analyze the debris at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA noted that the ISS will perform a detailed investigation of the incident. It will ultimately update the models it uses to estimate the survivability of any object it jettisons from the space station.

“These models require detailed input parameters and are regularly updated when debris is found to have survived atmospheric re-entry to the ground,” the space agency stated, adding that it “remains committed to responsibly operating in low Earth orbit, and mitigating as much risk as possible to protect people on Earth when space hardware must be released.”

While there haven’t been very few recorded instances of space debris smashing through homes, space debris is increasingly being found in the open. For example, pieces of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule were recently found on farms in Australia and Canada.

We live in an age where space agencies and organizations will increasingly face claims for property damage due to space debris. With its response to the Otero family’s claim, NASA could set a precedent for safer space operations for years.

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ABOUT THE EDITOR

Chris Young Chris Young is a journalist, copywriter, blogger and tech geek at heart who’s reported on the likes of the Mobile World Congress, written for Lifehack, The Culture Trip, Flydoscope and some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including NEC and Thales, about robots, satellites and other world-changing innovations. 

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