Peacetime innovation following WWII led to continued development of the rocket engine and made it the driving force behind the space race of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The first successful orbital launch came from the Soviet unmanned Sputnik 1 in 1957. The early Soviet success spurred on the development of the American space program. In 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the globe, a feat that marked the beginning of a new era in space exploration.
As rocket technology progressed, the amount of unmanned objects in earth orbit rapidly proliferated. The same nations that led space exploration efforts were simultaneously leading the development of weaponized rockets for use on earth. As such, fears began to grow that the inevitable end of these pursuits was the proliferation of weapons to be used from, and in, space. The United States emerged as a leader in the efforts to ban weapons from space, pointing to the Antarctic Treaty as a good model to apply to international space exploration and development.
The first treaty applicable to space exploration was the Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963 with the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States as the original parties. The Test Ban Treaty limited the test detonation of nuclear weapons to underground and included outer space as an area in which nuclear testing was banned. Though the Test Ban Treaty was an important first step in preserving the security of outer space, in 1966 the United States and the USSR proposed a treaty to ensure that space was treated as a frontier of only peaceful exploration.
After consideration by a UN subcommittee, the UN General Assembly agreed on a text for the treaty. The official name of the treaty is 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 final version of the treaty was opened for signing by the three depository governments on 27 February 1967. On that same day, representatives of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR completed their official signing of the treaty. The signatories for their respective states were: the Hon. Anatoly Dobrynin (Ambassador USSR), Sir Patrick Dean (Ambassador United Kingdom), and Sec. Dean Rusk and President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States. The treaty was officially enforced on 10 October 1967. As of May 2013, 102 nations are party to the treaty, while an additional 27 nations have signed the treaty without completing their ratification.
The Outer Space Treaty is the foundational document of international space law and provides the basic framework for such a law to develop in the future. The basic principles outlined in the treaty as listed on the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs are as follows:
- The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
- Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
- Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
- States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
- The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
- Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
- States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
- States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
- States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.