Consider the vastness of outer space for a moment and ask yourself whether it is possible or should be possible to sum up everything we humans might want to do in outer space in a three-page document.
It was certainly possible in October 1967 – at least in an ambitious sense – when the Outer Space Treaty entered into force. But it couldn’t have been possible, not for a legal framework that lasted 55 years… and we’re still growing.
Our use of, and ambitions for, outer space have changed so much in the past five decades that those three pages* just don’t cut it anymore.
* I exclude the preamble and articles thirteen to seventeen, which are largely legal terms. (So, it’s more like seven pages. Big shout out.)
So, why do we have an Outer Space Treaty?
In the 1960s, we had two major players in space: the USA and the Soviet Union. We were in a cold war of ideologies, technology, global trade and resources, with battles for geographical control of land, sea and sky. But not in space.
The Cold War could have seeped into space, but the two superpowers have vowed to keep outer space free of military conflict. Plus, we’ve had enough other battles to fight on the ground – Vietnam, to name a few. They reserved outer space for exploration and science, calling it “the property of all mankind.”
But they had all this rocket science from World War II, so why not use it – they blew some humans up in space and planted a science? why not? Well, by raising its flag on the moon, the United States shocked its stake in the heart of the treaty. For this.
Race through the Apollo years and you could argue that without the Outer Space Treaty, we wouldn’t have had more than 20 years of great collaboration on the International Space Station.
Article 5 states that “the parties to the Treaty shall regard the astronauts as the envoys of mankind in outer space and shall render them all possible assistance …” – it speaks of assisting the astronauts upon their return to Earth.
The spirit of these words was seen in action in the early months of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War when Russia could have left NASA astronaut Mark Vande Haye stranded on the International Space Station, but instead allowed him to return to Earth on a Russian ship – building a craft Soyuz space with Russian cosmonauts.
So, everything is fine there. But spirit and goodwill will not see us for much longer. Things have changed a lot since 1967.
Several other space treaties side by side have been, if you allow me, to paraphrase the ESA space debris expert’s guidance, “unenforceable”. But the Outer Space Treaty remains the foundation, like the ceremonial constitution, on which all other space laws are based.
The problem is that the treaty is vague and unenforceable in and of itself.
DW Science Editor, Zulficar Abani
I’ve spoken to outer space experts who celebrate the treaty because of its ambiguity – “that’s what makes it adaptable,” they say – and to space lawyers who agree that the treaty is an anachronism and that it should be implemented – for the same reason.
The problem of the Outer Space Treaty
Perhaps the treaty wasn’t entirely in the wrong—maybe it was the times we’re living in.
In the 1960s, he would have predicted, we had thousands of active satellites orbiting our planet, each under threat by ten times the number of bits of space debris — every little rock vying to destroy our increasingly essential global communication networks. Satellites are moved by controllers on Earth to dodge space debris more regularly than I care to look for now.
Who would have thought that we would see China ahead of the Moon and other “celestial bodies” like asteroids, where all other nations failed. China was the first country to land on the far side of the moon, but you would have never imagined it back in the 1960s.
It is also, along with Japan, pioneering what scientists call “sample return missions” – automated retrievals of rocks and minerals that we all need for our survival on Earth.
And who would have predicted that some of the new players in space, India among them, would be very happy to launch rockets from Earth to launch their satellites from orbit – even though the Outer Space Treaty prohibits it.
DART mission: It’s about protecting Earth from asteroids, but who’s going to stop using the same technology to attack a country’s space interests?
Article 4 refers to celestial bodies when it says that “testing any kind of weapon… is prohibited,” but it’s a short step from launching your own satellite to shooting another one, or an asteroid hitting a spacecraft (read, NASA’s latest DART mission) …
All research and innovation is adaptable for both good and evil, and “all mankind” has shown many times how we like to adapt good things to do bad things.
Who would have predicted it? We all expected that.
But we can save the treaty
We can still turn this around. We can work even harder to encourage countries like China to accept “international responsibility” when their missiles – turned into space junk – land on Earth, land in our oceans and pollute them.
Articles 10 and 11 of the treaty refer to equality and information sharing. And we can improve transparency about our ambitions in space. We can build on Earth observation programs that really aim to benefit all people in our climate emergencies.
However, there is one thing we cannot fix and that is the dreams of the 1960s that we could have made peace in outer space. The United States officially considers space to be another dominance of war, so it would be foolish for Russia not to. And as we can see on our screens, these old enemies are still old enemies. So, given how we struggle to observe international law on Earth, especially in war, what are our chances of getting space?
Edited by: J. Wingard