This Week in Space: 62 Nations Sign 1967 Outer Space Treaty
Fifty-three years ago today, the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom opened a treaty for signatures that would be nicknamed the “Outer Space Treaty.” The signers included nations from Europe, Asia, South America, North America, Africa and Australia.
The treaty, officially named the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” is primarily famous for prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons in space.
In addition, it limits the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies for peaceful purposes only. The treaty establishes that space shall be free for exploration by all nations. In other words, no nation may claim sovereignty of anything outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
The Outer Space Treaty, like the Law of the Sea Treaty before it, was a foundational stepping stone to a new era of human exploration in space.
Outer Space Treaty Does Not Ban Use of Military in Space
Notably, the Outer Space Treaty does not ban military activities within space, military space forces, or the weaponization of space, except for nuclear weapons.
The treaty became necessary in the aftermath of high-altitude nuclear tests performed by both the U.S. and U.S.S.R between 1958 and 1962, which resulted in damaging electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). For instance, the 1962 U.S. nuclear test codenamed Starfish Prime had these effects:
- There was damage to electronics in Honolulu and New Zealand (approximately 1,300 kilometers away).
- Three hundred streetlights on Oahu (Hawaii) were fused.
- One hundred burglar alarms were set off.
- A microwave repeating station on Kauai experienced a failure, which cut off the sturdy telephone system from the other Hawaiian Islands.
The Space Law Field Is Growing
As we enter a new era of space competition, not just between nations, but private enterprise as well, the need for a robust legal system in space is more necessary than ever.
The primary failing of the Outer Space Treaty is that it focuses on nation-states over private companies. No doubt, the Outer Space Treaty framers couldn’t have predicted that companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin would have a significant presence in space.
But as we continue to extend our reach into the solar system, a new multidisciplinary approach must be taken with lawyers, ethicists, sociologists and corporate councils all playing a role in the fair exploitation of the nearly limitless resources in space.
In fact, numerous law schools have recently begun offering concentrations in space law for tomorrow’s space lawyers. Why be an intellectual property or criminal defense attorney when you could be a “space lawyer!”