Family whose roof was damaged by space debris files complaints against NASA

The piece of debris that fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero (right) came from a discarded support from the International Space Station.

The owner of a home in Southwest Florida formally filed a claim with NASA for damage caused by a piece of space junk that fell through his roof in March.

The legal case is unprecedented: evidently no one has made such a claim against NASA before. How the space agency responds will set a precedent, and that may be important in a world where there is more and more activity in orbit, with debris and space vehicles increasingly re-entering uncontrollably through Earth’s atmosphere.

Alejandro Otero, owner of the debris-hit Naples, Florida, home, was not home when part of an International Space Station battery crashed into his home on March 8. His son Daniel, 19, was home but was not injured. NASA has confirmed that the 1.6-pound object, made of the metal alloy Inconel, was part of a battery pack discarded from the space station in 2021.

An attorney for the Otero family, Mica Nguyen Worthy, told Ars that they have sought “more than $80,000” from NASA for uninsured property damage losses, business interruption damages, emotional and mental distress damages, and the costs of third-party assistance. parties.

“We intentionally kept it very reasonable because we didn’t want it to look to NASA like my clients are looking for a windfall,” Worthy said.

The family has not filed a lawsuit against NASA, at least not yet. Worthy said she has had productive conversations with NASA legal representatives. He said the Otero family wants to be compensated for their losses, but also to set a precedent for future victims. “This is really the first lawsuit that has been filed to recover damages related to space debris,” Worthy said. “How NASA responds will, in my opinion, be critical to how future claims are handled. This is really changing the legal landscape.”

Who exactly is responsible for space debris?

If space debris from another country (for example, the upper stage of a Chinese or Russian rocket) were to hit a family in the United States, the victims would be entitled to compensation under the Space Liability Convention agreed to by the space powers half ago. century. Under this treaty, a launching State is “absolutely” responsible for paying compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the Earth’s surface or to aircraft, and is responsible for damage due to its failures in space. In an international situation, NASA or some other US government agency would negotiate compensation on behalf of the victim.

However, in this case the remains came from the International Space Station: an old battery for which NASA was responsible. NASA completed a multi-year upgrade of the space station’s power system in 2020 by installing a final set of new lithium-ion batteries to replace aging nickel-hydrogen batteries that were nearing the end of their useful life. . During a spacewalk, this battery pack was mounted on a charging pad launched by Japan.

Originally, officials planned to place pallets of old batteries inside a series of Japanese supply freighters for controlled, destructive re-entries over the ocean. But due to a series of delays, the last old battery charging platform missed its return trip to Earth, so NASA discarded the batteries for an unguided re-entry. NASA mistakenly believed that the batteries would burn up completely during the return through the atmosphere.

This cylindrical object, just a few centimeters in size, fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero's Florida home in March.
Enlarge / This cylindrical object, just a few centimeters in size, fell through the roof of Alejandro Otero’s home in Florida in March.

Because this case falls outside the Space Liability Convention, there is no mechanism for a U.S. citizen to file claims with the U.S. government for damages caused by space debris. So the Otero family is filing for the first time a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act for falling space debris. This tort law allows someone to sue the US government if there has been negligence. In this case, the negligence could be because NASA miscalculated the survival of enough debris to damage property on Earth.

NASA provided a form to the Otero family to file a claim, which Worthy said they did in late May. NASA now has six months to review the claim. The space agency has several options. Legally, he could award the Otero family up to $25,000 for each of their claims based on the Federal Tort Claims Act (see legal code). If the agency intends to pay full restitution, it would need approval from the U.S. attorney general. Finally, NASA could reject the claims or make an unacceptable settlement offer, in which case the Otero family could file a federal lawsuit in Florida.

Ars has sought comment from NASA on the claims made and will update this story when we receive one.

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