25. Space International: What Laws Will Govern the Use of Outer Space

Submitted by sondra on Sun, 09/11/2011 - 12:52pm

by Richard Wallace, Education Department, The Museum of Flight Lawmakers discussing space law at the United ations. -Photo courtesy of The Museum of Flight.

Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight on April 12, 1961, began an adventure that eventually became international in scope. At present, representatives from 38 nations have flown in space. Countries as tiny as the island of Cuba and as vast as Canada have sent their citizens aboard American space shuttles and Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

On October 15, 2003, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei was launched into Earth orbit, traveling inside a Shenzhou V spacecraft. China now joins the United States and Russia as the third country to put humans into space via its own space program.

As more governments develop the technologies to support space travel, and private enterprise invests in tourism beyond the planet Earth, questions of international space law and diplomacy acquire a new importance.

A New Kind of Law

The dawn of the Space Age arrived on October 4, 1957, with the launch of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. The following year, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called upon the United Nations to study the legal questions of space exploration. 

To examine these issues, the U.N. created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, known by the acronym COPUOS. COPUOS is composed of two subcommittees: the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and the Legal Subcommittee.

Since its inception, COPUOS has drafted and negotiated five international treaties. The most important and far-reaching of these documents is the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” aka the “Outer Space Treaty.”

Quoting from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Web site: “The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, including the following principles: The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means; States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner; the moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind; States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or nongovernmental activities; States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.”

Intially signed by the USSR, the United States and Great Britain in January, 1967, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force in October 1967. As of January, 2007, the Treaty has been ratified by 98 “States” and signed by another 27 states.

Province of All Mankind

Another treaty, The Moon Agreement (1979), an offshoot of the Outer Space Treaty, directly addresses the issue of property rights on other celestial bodies, primarily our moon. It states that natural lunar resources, on the surface or subsurface, are not to be owned by any one country, government or individual. The legal idea informing this agreement is known as “res communis,” meaning that space “belongs to all mankind.”

The response to this agreement has been lukewarm at best. Twelve parties have signed it; none of them representing a space-faring nation.

Why has this document, based on such an altruistic concept of fairness, been such a failure? The answers are to be found in the evolution of space travel from a fictional concept to a practical reality with economic benefits.

“Res communis” versus “res nullius”

Nineteenth century author Jule Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” was a literary entertainment, based on the science of the time. The Saturn V rocket, carrying astronauts to the moon, was a real-life historical achievement. The subsequent generation of space vehicles — shuttle crafts and space stations — has shown space to be a low-gravity environment ideal for the production of new products such as pharmaceuticals, as well as for aeroponics, the growing of plants without the use of soil. In addition, devices designed for use on the ISS have found many useful applications on Earth.

Such opportunities are clearly on the radar of individuals and corporations, who are beginning to look skyward, seeing potential profit in enterprises like space manufacturing and space tourism —replacing the concept of “res communis” with its polar opposite, “res nullius,” or “belonging to no one.” Seen through the lens of capitalism, this translates as “first come, first served.” The 21st century will be the arena where these battles of private and public interest will be waged. These challenges, along with the regulation of global satellite communications and the threat of space terrorism, will call for enlightened legislation and enlightened people who can see past their own borders and look at the whole planet, as all travelers do from the beautiful viewpoint of space.