Managing Space

HIR Issue: 
A New Empire

 In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke perceptively noted that “one day, we may have brain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes, the whole world would’ve shrunk to a point and the traditional role of the city as a meeting place for men would’ve ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute—they will communicate.” Clarke’s comment predicts rather accurately some of the achievements in man’s outer space activities since the Sputnik launch in 1957 and the signature of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967.

As the year turns into 2012, communications satellites allow personal communications and the mass distribution of information on a global basis—helping to remove the digital divide. Such characteristics now allow telemedicine by satellite in remote areas and in emergencies, teleconsultation and patient monitoring, and represent perhaps the best means of ensuring access to information and medical services for all.

Access to space is still a new resource whose users may be states, intergovernmental organisations and increasingly private entities and individuals. The international legal framework governing such activities needs to allow new activities, offer flexibility, and protect investment and creativity, while being accountable to the underlying principles enshrined in the 1967 Treaty. This article looks back at the progression of space law from the first Sputnik transmissions, through the development of outer space as a tool for communications, environmental management and commercialization, to the new plans for human spaceflight. The article then considers some challenges for the next 50 years and possible reforms in the international framework.

Progression of International Space Law

Launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957

The years between the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the signing of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 were marked by fierce Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in military power, and in the space race. The Outer Space Treaty, though it was agreed upon at the height of the Cold War, is characterized by the freedom of outer space for exploration and use by all states for peaceful purposes without discrimination and on the basis of equality, the non-appropriation of outer space (no individual state or person can own it), and the rule of law. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, not only did the United States begin to stress the teaching of math and science in school curricula, but it launched its own space program. On July 16, 1969, the first astronauts to walk on the moon had an audience of millions of people around the world. Looking back, perhaps the greatest success of the space race was the technology revolution it catalyzed, particularly in communications and broadcasting.

The Creation of Space Law

These early years were also characterised by a global international relations achievement – the agreement on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty in 1967, resolving that outer space should be the common heritage of mankind to be used for peaceful purposes in the interests of all nations, limiting state sovereignty. Just as important was the need to assess the risks involved in outer space ventures, control space activities, identify space objects, deal with the return of space objects to Earth, and determine liability for damage caused by space objects to other space objects, aircraft, or even to persons or property on Earth. Thus consensus on the Agreement on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts 1968, the Liability Convention 1972, and the Registration Convention 1975 was reached. Each expands on the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, giving state parties a general framework for the rights and duties of states in the exploration and use of outer space.

Following the moon landing in 1969, there was the public excitement and perception that the exploration and the use of the moon would increase and therefore that some international regime governing activities on the moon would be needed. After reaching agreement on the treaties mentioned above however, and when it became apparent that there was no immediately planned exploration of the moon, interest in negotiating the Moon Agreement waned. The Moon Agreement was adopted by the UN General Assembly over ten years after the Outer Space Treaty, and it came into force in 1984. The provisions of the Moon Agreement go beyond that of the Outer Space Treaty in ways that have been a barrier to its ratification by states. The issue is Article 11, which expresses the principle of the common heritage of the moon and its resources, prohibiting national appropriation.