Space Law: The Outer Space Treaty Turns 50!

Space treaty
Signing of the Outer Space Treaty

OK, so it’s officially called the Principles Governing the Activities of States in Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, but everyone knows it as the Outer Space Treaty. It was signed on January 27, 1967 and as of January 2017, 105 countries are parties to the treaty.

The Outer Space Treaty sets forth the basic framework of Space Law which is still used today. The original intent was nonarmament in the Cold War era, and it sought to prevent a “new form of colonial competition” and the possible damage that exploitation might cause – a “tragedy of the commons” situation. At its most basic, it sought to prevent the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.

Indra Cover
Indra Hornsby, Spaceflight General Counsel

With the advent of commercial space endeavors, the Treaty has taken on a new importance. Our own general counsel Indra Hornsby, discussed this in an recent issue of National, the official publication of the Canadian Bar Association:

“You’re looking at the development of something new – an orbital economy,” says Indra Hornsby, former chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s air and space law panel, currently chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s SmallSat/NewSpace Sector Committee. She’s also general counsel for Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based company that sells mission management and access to launch services to private and public sector actors looking to get a payload into space.”

“The UN treaty was a great foundation, but it was conceived at a time when nobody imagined this work being done by anyone but government actors. Nobody saw private enterprise coming. Now the technology has advanced to the point where you’re seeing credible plans coming forward and capital following them. Now we have to build a legal structure to accommodate them.”

Since the signing of this Treaty, other agreements have been signed to support it, like the Rescue Agreement in 1968 addressing astronauts who face an emergency, and the Moon Agreement in 1979 that gives more detailed information on property rights for celestial bodies.
More recently, the US Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act of 2015 and the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 have tried to address the new landscape of space exploration.

Space law will continue to develop, but the Outer Space Treaty is still the most basic framework for the peaceful exploration of space by countries here on earth. Happy birthday!

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