Space Law

Space law is a field of INTERNATIONAL LAW concerned with the law applicable to exploration and use of outer space. With the launching of the first satellites in the 1950s, questions arose over the problem of sovereignty in space. Numerous resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and five major international treaties took up these problems. Perhaps the most important treaty was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It stated that the MOON and all other celestial bodies were to be free for exploration and use by all states and that international law and the UN charter would apply. Signatories pledged not to place weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in space or to establish military bases there. (The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibited nuclear testing in outer space.) The treaty requires all states to assist astronauts if they land outside their national borders. Each nation is responsible for the activities of its nationals in space, and the launching state is liable for damages to persons and property of another state resulting from its space activities.

The 1968 Treaty on the Rescue and Return of Astronauts, the 1972 Treaty on Outer Space Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, and the 1974 Treaty on Registration of Space Objects with the United Nations added to the growing body of space law. In the 1979 Moon Treaty, however, provisions regarding commercial mineral extraction on the Moon have aroused considerable controversy. The United States, among other nations, has not signed the treaty--perhaps out of concern that aspects of the law, such as required sharing of space technologies, may inhibit exploration.

During the 1970s and '80s the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space discussed resolutions that might lead to further treaties. One dealt with direct-broadcast satellites, another with the boundaries between national domain and outer space. In the 1990s a nuclear satellite safety treaty was nearing completion, and environmental and space debris treaties were under active consideration.

The launching and stationing of communications and other satellites have presented practical legal problems. The United States has made bilateral arrangements with other countries for tracking, data acquisition, communications testing, transmission of meteorological information, and the launching of satellites for other countries. Advances in space technology also require further legal developments, particularly with the growth of commercial operations in space. The more mundane problems involved in such operations include the patenting of materials and processes that could be conceived and pursued on space stations, questions of civil liability and insurance, and matters of contracts and of export controls. In general, progress in outer space will be best advanced by having the maximum number of nations participate in space policy agreements.

Edward R. Finch, Jr.
Copyright 1995 by Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.

Bibliography: Benko, Marietta, et al., Space Law in the United Nations (1985); Finch, E. R., Jr., and Moore, A. L., Astrobusiness (1984); Galloway, Eilene, Foundations of Space Law (1987); Goldman, N. C., American Space Law (1988) and Space Policy (1992); Hurwitz, G. A., The Legality of Space Militarization (1986); Okolie, C. C., International Law of Satellite Remote Sensing and Outer Space (1989); Reynolds, G. H., and Merges, R. P., Outer Space (1989); Wassenbergh, H. A., Principles of Outer Space Law in Hindsight (1991).

Compliments of Proposition One Committee