The Outer Space Treaty, which provides the basic framework on international space law, was opened for signatures in the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom.

The full name of the agreement is “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. The document was drawn up by the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that had been established by the United Nations General Assembly shortly after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957.

The treaty consists of just 17 articles, all of which were intended to be flexible in order to adapt to new advances in space technology. At its core, though, are the key principals that underline all modern space exploration. These include an agreement that all exploration should be done “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries” and that nobody has the right to claim celestial bodies as their own, in an attempt to avoid the frenetic imperialism of the nineteenth century. To avoid space becoming a new frontier for war, the treaty banned countries from placing weapons of mass destruction in space – though doesn’t forbid conventional weapons.

107 countries are currently party to the treaty, although another 23 have signed it but not completed ratification. This makes it, in the words of Christopher Johnson, the space law adviser for the Secure World Foundation, “the most important and most fundamental source of international space law.” Nations subsequently create their own specific legislation, but this draws on the 17 principles laid out in the Outer Space Treaty. As a result space exploration has remained entirely peaceful – for the time being at least.

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