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…


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.