The legal status of 3D printed food in outer space

Let us have a look for this new Space Law article at the legal status of 3D printed food in space. The first 3D printed steak has recently been grown and printed in the International Space Station (ISS). We will analyse the legal consequences of this innovation. Firstly, we have to determine if this food printed in outer space is a space object, to know which legislation will apply to it. Indeed, the status of space object is central in space law, to know which legal regime, and which liability will be enforced in case of damage caused by this item. Objects manufactured in outer space become more and more common, and 3D printing is now seen as a way to go beyond the boundaries imposed by the need of feeding the astronauts.

The first legal definition of space objects can be found in the 1961 general assembly resolution of the U.N., titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. In this text, space object refers to any object launched by States into outer space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty links this term to the notions of liability, registration, and a prohibition on the placement of weapons of mass destruction into outer space.

3D printed food refers to aliments manufactured from the most basic nutrients, to retrieve the taste, smell, and texture of the natural version, by a machine functioning like another 3D printer, except that the ink is eatable. It’s prepared in an additive manner, by layers, like a classical 3D object. 3D printed meat “ink” is grown in a Petri dish, from cow cells. With the right environment, conditions, and some nutritive substance, the muscle and fat cells taken from the animal via a biopsy develops itself until it’s big enough to be assembled, then eaten. Unfortunately, no astronaut from the ISS have been able to taste this space grown meat since it was immediately sent back to Earth for further experiment. Engineers behind this project want to be sure these steaks are entirely safe before astronauts eats it.

The development of such food would address the lack of diversity in astronauts’ meals and allow a better recycling of their wastes. Another benefit of this new way of cooking, and feeding astronauts, is that wastes are reduced to the minimum, and nutrients can be calculated very precisely to fit the human needs. Meals can be prepared with the same high requirements as the ones prepared on Earth to send in outer space. The goal is also to create an autonomous feeding system for long space travels, like a Martian mission.

Biotechnology is only at his beginning, and it’s already a major stake for space conquest. This 3D printed meat could be the first fruits of a whole new way of feeding astronauts. The classification of 3D printed food as space object shouldn’t be a big debate, if non-food printed objects are recognized as such. The only difference is the biological nature of what food 3D printers create.

The main issue would be to determine its launching state. The food printed in space is made from the printer, and the ink, which are space launched objects. Therefore, the food would be a space object too. We believe its launching State would be the one that manufactured and sent the printer in outer space, or its component parts, or the State from whose the astronauts or robotic instrument that installed the printed were sent. If the printer was made from materials coming from different launching State, or if the ink and the printer come from different launching State, it would be the one who played the biggest role in the manufacturing or the installation of the printer.

We could try to predict, based on space objects legislation, what would be the legal consequences for 3D printed food which poison the crew of a space ship or station. The object that caused the damage would be a space object, in all likelihood, but what if the user of the 3D food printer is from a different country than the ones who build it? And if an astronaut from another nationality took care of assembling the printer in space? Space is an international zone, so it would be difficult to link the liability to one State, or to draw out the liability of each one of the participating countries, since the printed object wasn’t sent in space, and can be created there with a joint effort of several nations. In any case, we can see that the nature of space printed object has an impact on which country can be considered as the launching State. Space legislation has to take this specificity into account, in order to determine the liability of a damage caused by this item.

The damages caused by a space object trigger international third-party liability, laid down by the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). The difficulty is that this Convention is mute about the case where a space object has been made by several countries. When two States set up a joint launch, both are severally liable for the damage caused by the launched object, therefore, we can deem that a printed object made by two or more Nations would follow the same principle, and would be severally responsible for it.

Nature of 3D printed food also create an issue. Since it’s not meant to last, its lifetime is limited. It’s complicating the situation, because a “space steak” could decay quickly and may be re-printed from the same material. If this recycled food contain germs that contaminate the astronauts, and force them to abort a mission, the liability could be hard to determine because the damage could find its origin in a previous printing, changing the nation considered as the launching state.

According to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), space objects must be listed in an appropriate registry. We can’t be sure that this obligation would remain if the object wasn’t sent, but assembled in outer space. It may be useful to create a new legal system for food printed into space, since they are not meant to last, or to be sent in orbit, but consumed quickly by the astronauts. It would be very cumbersome to force a space crew to register every piece of food printed into space. The registration of the 3D printer could be sufficient to ensure that the liability could be found, in the situation were this aliment would cause a damage.

For the time being, there is no food printed in space that is eaten by astronauts, but it’s obviously the final objective. Consequently, it would be useful to enforce a new legal regime for these specific space objects, to ensure that the development of this method isn’t restrained by the burdensome of a procedure created for object sent into space from the Earth, and which are meant to last for a whole mission.

Considering all these aspects, we can see that space legislation is still very immature and, therefore, incomplete about issues like the ones related to 3D printed food; we expect that the next treaties regulating these activities will give answers regarding the specificities of this field which will be both convenient and protective of the different actors. That is what can be said concerning 3D printed food in space.

This article was written by Maxime LE STER (Paris-Saclay).