The Outer Space Treaty Promised Peace In Space

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In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly established the annual World Space Week. It’s an international celebration of science and technology bookmarked by two historically important dates: the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, and the signing of the so-called Outer Space Treaty on Oct. 10, 1967. The latter treaty was designed to ensure that ongoing exploration of space was peaceful a peaceful endeavor for all nations.

While the treaty was a long time coming when it was signed, it couldn’t keep the military entirely out of space.

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In the mid-1950s, the space age was set to begin for scientific ends. Knowing the period between July 1957 and December 1958 was one of peak solar activity, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed in 1952 that it be an International Geophysical Year. As part of their IGY activities, both the US and the USSR announced plans to launch Earth orbiting satellites. But at the same time, both countries were also developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. When the United States proposed partial disarmament to control weapons testing in space, the Soviet Union declined any agreement. One of the Soviets’ ICBMs eventually developed into the R-7 rocket that carried Sputnik into orbit.

After Sputnik’s launch, when satellites streaking across the sky became an increasingly common sight, the US again pushed to bar the use of space for military ends. President Eisenhower looked to the Antarctic Treaty — which stipulated all activities on Antarctica be peaceful and that all scientific data gathered at research stations there be publicly available to all nations — as a guide and proposed a similar treaty be adopted for space exploration. That space should be a peaceful arena was a long-held belief of Eisenhower’s; he’d established NASA, the civilian space agency, in 1958 as a way of separate space exploration from national military programs.

1963 saw the US and USSR move slightly closer to an agreement on the peaceful use of space. After the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, both nations signed the Test Ban Treaty (properly the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water) that was ratified by the United Nations. This prohibited either nation from detonating nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.

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Seeking to solidify the Test Ban Treaty, the US and the USSR submitted proposals in 1966 to solidify space as a peaceful arena. The articles of the treaty were finalized and signed on Jan. 27, 1967. Properly called the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the treaty was enforced on Oct. 10, 1967.

The Outer Space Treaty reflected the prospect of man’s inevitable expansion into space, an endeavor for all mankind rather than a single nation seeking to prove technological dominance. The treaty sought to establish political and legal guidelines to ensure man’s expansion into space be done for the benefit of all nations irrespective of economic wealth or scientific development. The idea was to establish a cooperative aspect to space exploration such that space exploration foster friendly relations between nations.

In signing this Outer Space Treaty, the US and USSR agreed not to place any nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction into Earth orbit, on the moon, on any other celestial body, or install them on any orbiting space station. It also made it such that neither nation could make exploring other planets into a military endeavor – there could be no military bases established in orbit or on any celestial bodies, no fortifications of any kinds built in space, and neither country could build any weapons testing facilities or conduct military activities on any planets or in space. “The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.”

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Of course, at the time the treaty was signed, both the United States and the Soviet Union had military satellites in orbit. And the language of the Outer Space Treaty didn’t penalize this. It didn’t call for the disarmament of space but rather focused on the non-aggressive use of space.  The Outer Space Treaty didn’t prohibit non-aggressive military activity like reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence, and it didn’t expressly prohibit dual-purpose satellites like communications satellites that can transfer both civilian and military information. The treaty also didn’t prohibit military personnel from participating in any space-based activities so long as their being in space didn’t violate the non-aggressive guidelines: “The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited.” But research in this instance was a vague term; the treaty didn’t directly prohibit either nation from testing individual systems or hardware that might be used as part of a space weapons system.

These loopholes were exploited to varying degrees by both countries with spy satellites, military spaceplanes like the Air Force’s X-37B program, and even NASA’s partnership with the Department of Defense in building the space shuttle, which in turn spurred the Soviet Union into building its own shuttle Buran. And throughout the Cold War, the agreed non-aggressive use of space didn’t entirely quell fears of a possible nuclear war in orbit with bombs raining down from space.

But the 1967 Outer Space Treaty has kept any military activity in space from developing into a full-blown face-off. And it still stands as the governing document of space programs, one that all spacefaring nations have agreed to.

Image (top): President Johnson congratulates Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin during ceremony in White House East Room today which formally put into effect the treaty barring the use of nuclear weapons in outer space. The U.S. and 12 other countries which have ratified the treaty participated in the ceremony. Credit: Corbis

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