Our Place in Space: The Outer Space Treaty

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, O is for…

THE OUTER SPACE TREATY

Believe it or not, human law does extend to outer space.  There are international agreements in place saying what is and is not legal in space.  And these agreements go back decades.  It all started with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.  Every nation with a space program has signed on to the Outer Space Treaty, and many nations that do not currently have space programs have signed on as well.  Today, the Outer Space Treaty is regarded as the founding document—the Magna Carta, of sorts—for all of space law.

According to the treaty, any human who goes to space shall be considered an “envoy of mankind,” and all space agencies around the world shall have a responsibility to avoid the “harmful contamination” of any alien environments they wish to explore.  Provisions like that reflect the idealism of the 1960’s, I feel, but there are also provisions that reflect the deeper fears and anxieties of that time.  Most notably:

  • No nuclear weapons in space.
  • Seriously, no nation may put nuclear weapons in space.  Ever!
  • No nation may use the Moon or any other celestial body for military purposes.
  • No nation may claim ownership of the Moon or any other celestial body.
  • Did I mention this already?  I may have mentioned this already, but it’s really important: NO NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN SPACE!!!

The good news is there are no nuclear weapons in space.  By all accounts, every nation involved in space exploration has followed the rules the Outer Space Treaty established (or at least no one has ever blatantly violated the treaty).  But will that continue to be the case going forward?

Of late, some concerns have been raised.  You see, when the treaty was written, it was assumed by everyone that governments would be in charge of space exploration, not private companies.  It was assumed that the people who go to space would be highly trained astronauts, not private citizens engaged in space tourism.  So should space tourists be considered “envoys of mankind”?  Are private companies allowed to claim ownership of celestial bodies?  And do private companies have any legal obligation to avoid “harmful contamination” of alien environments?  The Outer Space Treaty is a little unclear about those issues.

As I said, the Outer Space Treaty reflects the idealism of the 1960’s and also the fears and anxieties of that time.  I imagine that, sooner or later, there will be new treaties and new agreements to address the concerns of today.  The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 may be considered the founding document for space law, but it is not the final word on space law.

We live in an ever changing world.  Laws need to be updated to keep up with the times.  That’s been true for all of recorded history.  It’s still true today, and it will continue to be true even in the distant future when humanity is spreading out across the Solar System.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s an article from The Conversation on the Outer Space Treaty and some of the concerns that have been raised in recent years about it.

12 thoughts on “Our Place in Space: The Outer Space Treaty

    1. Good question! I don’t know. I’d hate to see the Solar System get carved up by various corporate claims of ownership. At the same time, though, if private companies are going to invest more money in space exploration, they’ll want some assurance that they won’t lose their investments. They’ll want to know for sure that they “own” whatever they build out there. I’m not sure what the right balance would be, legally speaking.

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  1. What an interesting new area of Law to work in. I read a very interesting biography of a British high court judge who talked about how laws were rarely well crafted or fully thought out, and how it took a few years going through the judicial system for judges to tweak them via their judgements into something workable. I wonder who would be the equivalent of those high court judges in this scenario?

    Debs visiting this year from
    Making Yourself Relationship Ready

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    1. I don’t really know, but I’m guessing it would be up to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. But if the treaty has never been violated, judges probably haven’t had a chance to make any ruling about it, hence the lack of clarity about what the treaty means under these newer circumstances.

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    1. Agreed. My biggest worry is contamination. That’s something that can’t be fixed once it happens. But there’s a certain famous billionaire who’s made it clear he won’t let that concern stop him.

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