Ep. 670: Governing Space – The Outer Space Treaty of 1967

The Universe was inaccessible for most of human history, but the first tentative steps to space in the 20th century made humanity realize that science fiction was becoming science reality. New rules would have to be written to govern how we used this limitless expanse. Today we’ll talk about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

The Outer Space Treaty (United Nations)

The Antarctic Treaty

Committee on Space Research (COSPAR)

Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN)

Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) (U.S. Department of State)

Rescue Agreement (UN)

International Space Station (NASA)

Liability Convention (UN)

The Martian (Andy Weir)

Moon Agreement (UN)

Artemis Accords (NASA)

Agenția Spațială Română: ROSA

The Kessler Effect and how to stop it (ESA)

World Heritage List (UNESCO)

Back to Top


Fraser: Astronomy Cast episode 670: Governing Space – the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and more. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, your weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hi, Pamela. How are you doing?

Dr. Pamela: I am doing well, and I am more grateful to our patrons than normal today because all of my technology has gone “no”. And after the show is over, I will be buying a replacement microphone because you are out there to allow this to happen, so thank you, patrons.

Fraser: Nice. Wonderful. Thank you, patrons. The universe was inaccessible for most of human history but the first tentative steps to space in the 20th century made humanity realize that science fiction was becoming science reality. New rules would have to be written to govern how we use this limitless expanse. Today, we’ll talk about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Okay, Pamela, it’s interesting to me to sort of think about this time like before even the first spacecraft was launched, and you know, science fiction writers had been considering what the future of human space exploration would be, but I wonder what perspective did people give do you think on how humanity’s nations would extend out beyond planet Earth?

Pamela: Well, it all actually started with the 1959 Antarctic treaty. So at this point, satellites were starting to be a thing; countries were starting to think about “we would like to call that chunk of Antarctica ours” based on who got which places first, and there was a lot of arguing over who got to which place first and what could be claimed by whom. And so with the 1959 Antarctic treaty, they set down the idea that the the continent of Antarctica belongs to everyone and is there as a place for scientists to explore and no one to commercially exploit. So we started with that, and it was that document that then, in many ways, formed the starting point of even the language that was used in the later space treaty. So it all starts with Antarctica, and ironically this is now where we train a lot of people. so one step at a time.

Fraser: Right, and so you can’t go place a flag and call this part of Antarctica.

Pamela: Exactly right.

Fraser: This is the colony from Argentina as just more of their space, and there are doubtless enormous resources locked under the thick ice shelf, it’s just at the time, it was just realized that it was so complicated to try and get at it, that it and the value of it as a pristine wilderness and as a place to do research was greater, and they all came together and agreed and formed the Antarctic treaty. Okay, so then how did the Antarctic Treaty then bleed into, like, what were the events that brought everyone together to start writing the Outer Space Treaty?

Pamela: So in 1958 as they’re working on drafting the Antarctic Treaty that would be ratified the following year, the Committee on Space Research – COSPAR – was an international committee, and it was pulled together to start looking at, well, people are now going around and around our planet; we should start figuring out how to govern this. And COSPAR is still out there today, and the following year in 1959, we had the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which is headquartered out of Vienna. It’s still there. The building that it’s in actually appeared in an Avengers movie, which confused me, but I don’t question these things it just happens.

Fraser: Yeah, it’s a cool building.

Pamela: And so we had those two organizations coming together to try and figure out literally the peaceful uses for space; they tied it straight into the name. And then in 1963, we started having new nations in addition to the US and USSR starting to look at nuclear weapons. We had the US and USSR testing their weapons, and that was the year that they came up with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which basically said, “Thou shalt not test nuclear weapons in the air, in the ocean, or in outer space.” So it was under the influence of, first, we have the Antarctic treaty saying, “This land is going to be shared by everyone; we’re going to do everything we can to not exploit, it not pollute it, and we’re going to take care of each other, so if someone in one thing starts to have issues people in the other habitat will go rescue them.” All of this came together…

Fraser: Yeah, I mean it’s crazy to think, right, that they were just detonating nuclear weapons on islands in the South Pacific or on islands in Siberia, that they were just finding out, and obviously the original tests in the U.S. that they would just blow these things up just to find out and to keep making them more powerful. And there would be fallout, and radiation would be kicked into the atmosphere. Like, it’s crazy! And yet, they did it.

Pamela: There was a John Wayne movie where they have traced a high cancer incidence of people who were on set to nearby nuclear testing. 

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: So with all of those terrible things going on in this world, people started to say, “Okay, let’s step back, and let’s make Antarctica first, and then the area around our world places that aren’t going to be a hot mess”, for lack of a better phrase, but that is really the best way to sum up the page after page after page of these documents.

Fraser: Right, right, right. Yeah, okay, so we’ve got to this point where people come together twice to consider topics that are, I guess, the two pieces of the puzzle because like I always joke about the Outer Space Treaty that it’s really all about nuclear weapons.

Pamela: Yeah!

Fraser: Like the vast majority of the Outer Space Treaty is thinking about nuclear weapons in space, right?

Pamela: And that’s that direct history coming out of 1963 with the test Limited Test Ban Treaty and the realization of “oh, we can put things in orbit now”, and this is a big debate in both of our nations right now where they keep finding small inflatables above our continents and then shooting them down. When you can put things in orbit, you can put them over anywhere.

Fraser: Yes. So then let’s talk about the Outer Space Treaty itself.

Pamela: So the Outer Space Treaty as initially signed in 1967 very much followed the language of the Antarctic Treaty, as I said, so it is to be shared by everyone for peaceful scientific pursuits. But it was realized over the years that it needed to be amended, so just one year passed before they were like, “Hmm… let’s add language in 1968 that there’s now a rescue agreement.” So the idea is if say something goes catastrophically wrong on the International Space Station, the Chinese astronauts who have the capacity – they probably don’t right now because the orbits are different – but if the Chinese astronauts had the capacity to go rescue the U.S. and Russian astronauts, they would be required to do it by the 1968 Rescue Agreement. That makes complete sense, makes for great plots of movies. Then in 1972, as we started getting more and more things in orbit, the idea of, well, “What if your spacecraft crashes into my spacecraft?” problem arose.

Fraser: Yeah, and it’s happened.

Pamela: It has, and it recently almost happened again where there were two dead spacecraft that came within a few meters of each other. And so in 1972, they added on the Space Liability Convention, which literally says that if your spacecraft crashes into my spacecraft, you are liable for my costs. 

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: Fair enough.

Fraser: And so, like, at this point, like the rules are you can’t own space, you can’t plant a flag, you can’t say, “The Moon is ours; we own it”, you can’t put nuclear weapons in space, and you can’t, for example, have a nuclear launch platform that is flying overhead that could drop bombs on your enemy cities within 10 seconds, right? 

Pamela: Theoretically, you can’t put any weapons platforms in space,

Fraser: No weapons platforms in space!

Pamela: Theoretically. 

Fraser: Right.

Pamela:  I mean we do periodically blow up our own stuff to show that we can.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: It’s a bit problematic.

Fraser: You are obligated to rescue anybody in space if you can. That’s very similar to maritime law; like, if you get the SOS call, you’re duty-bound to go and provide rescue by any means necessary.

Pamela: And that was actually a joke in Andy Weir’s “The Martian” where you have the Watney character basically saying that he was a Martian pirate as he was affecting various sites on Mars and basically trying to figure out what laws worked for what things. And since then, it has been figured out that Mars does not follow maritime law, but it was an interesting moment In the book. 

Fraser: Right. Yeah, yeah. Okay. All right. So that’s the law so far and were there any more modifications to it?

Pamela: Yeah, as things keep getting more complicated, we realize there’s more things we need to keep track of, and these are committees that are still out there functioning and if committees are capable of anything, it’s coming up with rules. So in 1976, they came out with the Registration Convention that says anything you launch into space and put into orbit needs to be registered with the UN. So we have a central registry set in the same office in Vienna, and the registration is supposed to say what the purpose of the spacecraft is. You can basically be as vague as you want.

Fraser: Right. So if you’re going to launch a reconnaissance satellite, you have to identify that you’ve launched it, but you don’t have to say what it does.

Pamela: Right. They often get away with “Earth surveillance” which is an accurate-ish phrase.

Fraser: Sure. Yeah.

Pamela: And then in 1979, many years after the Apollo missions, they came out with the Moon Treaty, which was an additional step not just for the Moon but for all the other bodies, and the original treaty, just to give the full name of it, was Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The idea of the Moon Treaty Amendment in 1979 was to protect the things that we’ve put on the Moon so far. So to essentially say you can’t go spray paint the Apollo missions, you can’t go beat up Luna and bring it back, so I don’t know why you would beat up Luna, but you can’t go bring it back. So we can’t essentially have museums stealing historic artifacts from the surface of the Moon. This is who we are as people that we need to worry about these things, and…

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: We’re just trying to protect the world.

Fraser:  So was this the end of the original Outer Space Treaty? Were there more amendments?

Pamela: This was the end of the original Outer Space Treaty, and since then, we’ve seen more and more bilateral agreements where there are the agreements between the U.S. and Russia for the International Space Station. There are multination agreements. This is where Japan later joined as did other nations. Canada, I believe, was actually an original signatory, so it wasn’t bilateral – it was multinational. You have closed agreements for things like the International Space Station. You have closed agreements for things like nations planning space missions to Mars together. And this new turn from multinational through the United Nations really came to a head with the Artemis Accords. This is a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and other nations that set out to describe how essentially people are going to share all of their data just like NASA does. So if you become part of the Artemis Accords, you’re required to make all of your scientific data public. It negotiates how international standards are going to be used, so everyone’s airlocks are going to be compatible with everyone else’s airlocks. Now, there are some surprising nations that are not signing on to the Artemis Accords so far.

Fraser: Let me guess. Let me guess. Russia.

Pamela: Well, yes that’s not surprising.

Fraser: And China.

Pamela: Also not surprising.

Fraser: Okay.

Pamela: But we didn’t see early enthusiasm either from Germany or India, which are countries we do work with, and the concerns on this are it’s very much NASA’s saying, “If you want to play in our sandbox,” and it is not NASA so much as Congress saying, “If you want to play in our sandbox, you have to sign on, our nation to your nation, bilaterally.” So it’s not Japan and Germany or Italy and Romania – Romania has their own space agency – it is not everyone going through the United Nations. It is literally you are signing an agreement with the United States negotiating whatever you negotiate and saying let’s go in it together. And anytime you have one nation saying “I am going to lead the way” instead of one nation saying “Let’s make a committee”… and this is where you see some fascinating comparisons where it was Eisenhower who originally was saying Antarctica shouldn’t belong to one nation, and it built on that, to now NASA’s saying everyone has to go with us.

Fraser: Right. I mean I think that there are a lot of new opportunities that are coming up with space as we’re becoming more capable in space, we’re seeing a bunch of issues start to rise, and I know that Congress has been trying to think about this. One is, say, the rise of space debris. That you can’t keep launching spacecraft and it to be sustainable. There was an interesting paper that I read. They calculated that we need to remove five pieces of space debris – like five dead spacecraft – at these higher altitudes. Like these spent boosters or these dead satellites… per year to keep up with the rate that debris is accumulating in space. And then if we don’t, then we’re heading towards that Kessler Syndrome. So we need that level of communication, not just can you get, you know approval, from the from the U.S. to fly your mission because it’s going to go over the ocean, it’s going to go over the countries. Like we’re going to get to a point where we need to have these kinds of agreements. And then the other one is control over the resources, like asteroids, things like that. You know you can’t own the Moon, you can’t own an asteroid, but the rules about you being able to harvest resources from that asteroid are a lot muddier. Like was Insight, when it was digging in the ground, was it mining regolith for its own purpose or was it performing science? So I think that there are that there’s just this gray area, and then I think, as we have more people going into space, than the militarization of space comes along with it, and what are the rules for the militarization of space? I mean, can you send an armed ship to protect satellites? Can satellites kill other satellites? What are the rules about that?

Pamela: And we see strange things happening on orbit where you can watch as one nation’s mission will creep up on another nation’s mission and just hang out eavesdropping, presumably, upon it.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: And so as we consider just what are the consequences of a full-on Kessler Syndrome occurring, what are the consequences of hydrazine – a fairly terrible chemical that we have had various rocket accidents in the past lead to hydrazine making it back onto the surface of the planet. Well, what about crashing it onto Mars? What about crashing it onto the Moon? These treaties also look to protect the landscapes. We have to figure out what the boundaries are, what counts as an accident, how we handle things before they go wrong so we’re not trying to figure it out in the moment that everything is going wrong.

Fraser: What? You think we’ll do that?

Pamela: I think we’ll try.

Fraser: Oh, okay. We’ll try. Yeah.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: People will recognize the issue and make warnings that other people should take very seriously but won’t.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: Right. And then, like, you think about some of these other really far-out ideas like what if Elon Musk pulls it off and starts building a city on Mars? Is that legal? Does that currently violate the Outer Space Treaty?

Pamela: So currently, you can build a scientific research base, currently you can do basic tourism – all these things that you see going on in Antarctica, totally fine to also do at Mars. Treat Mars like Antarctica.

Fraser: And so you can imagine a Elon Musk city as being a research station into human suffering.

Pamela: Yes, he is planning to build a company town.

Fraser: Right, but like, you know just what’s it like to live… how awful is it to live on Mars, right? Terrible! 

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: Let’s find out. Let’s really do the research to find out how terrible it is.

Pamela: But it does bring up things like when the U.S, was settled and here, I have to admit a gap in my Canadian knowledge, after our country was pretty much emptied of the indigenous people by diseases, we sent out settlers who basically could homestead land, and if they maintained the land and lived on it for a certain number of years, it became their own. And so the question becomes do we allow these people who are going to be homesteading on Mars to say that that land is theirs? And no, technically, we don’t. And that is exactly how every book ends up leading to Mars eventually declaring itself separate.

Fraser: Right. Yeah, if you want us to move, come and kick us out.

Pamela: Exactly.

Fraser: Yeah, possession is nine-tenths of the law in this situation. And it’s interesting. Like a lot of people I see in the YouTube comments will make these things like, “Well, China is going to the Moon, and they’re just gonna start claiming big chunks of the Moon for themselves for their helium-3 mining facilities.” But they can’t, right? They can’t claim chunks of the Moon. What the rules are in extracting resources from the Moon is still… there are not good laws to to cover this, so I think the exact same rules that we have here on Earth with… what are the rules about flying airplanes across other people’s airspace? What are the rules about putting boats out into the middle of the ocean? What are the rules about mining the deep sea? All of these, we’ve gone through this process; we know how to do this, and we know how to ignore the recommendations from scientists and the lawyers that are working on it, but all of these problems are gonna continue to crop up.

Pamela: Yeah, it’s going to be interesting in the Firefly definition of “oh my God, oh my God, we’re all going to die” for some bank accounts as companies try and find out what the limits are, what exactly can happen, but hopefully, it’s only going to be bank accounts that get hurt as companies find the limitations of the law.

Fraser: There was an interesting study that I saw a couple of years ago about trying to predict what would make good wilderness in the solar system that, you know, if you just take our gross domestic product and you just continue to ramp it up, we will be extracting resources across the solar system in a few hundred years; it’s kind of inevitable.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: And so then the question is do we want to leave Mars as this really pristine wilderness with, you know, this amazing trench, these cool volcanoes, and all of the features on Mars? Like there’s plenty of rocks to grind up, but they’re probably places across the solar system that are so special that we should leave them as wildernesses. And we have those here on Earth. We have these UNESCO Heritage sites. Do we start setting up UNESCO Heritage sites? So there’s… it had always been theoretical that we wouldn’t really have to think about how we’re going to get along, how we share this resource of the universe. It was kind of it was inaccessible and incomprehensible, and now we’re getting to the point where these are starting to be real issues that we’re going to have to wrangle and wrap our heads around.

Pamela: It’s a brave new world out there, and we’re gonna see this in our lifetime. And that is something I don’t know if I would have been saying when we started recording this show.

Fraser: Yeah. Really interesting. Awesome. All right, well, thanks, Pamela.

Pamela: And thank you, Fraser, and thank you to everyone out there on Patreon. We read the folks who donate ten dollars and higher each month, and we are grateful for all of you, even those who only donate a dollar. This week I would like to thank Georgi Ivanov, Will Hamilton, Michael Prochoda, Burry Gowen, Stephen Veit, Jordan Young, Jeanette Wink, nanoFlipps, Børre Andre Lysvoll, Andrew Poelstra, Venkatesh Chary, Brian Cagle, David Truog, Gerhard Schwarzer, David, Buzz Parsec, Zero Chill, Laura Kittleson, Robert Palsma, Jack Mudge, Les Howard, Joe Hollstein, Gordon Dewis, Frank Tippin, Adam Annis-Brown, Alexis, Richard Drumm, WandererM101, Astrosetz, Felix Gutt, William Andrews, Gold, Roland Warmerdam, Jeff Collins, Simon Parton, Kellianne and David Parker, Jeremy Kerwin, Stuart Mills, Harald Bardenhagen, marco iarossi, Georgi Ivanov, Scott Bieber, Kimberly Rieck, Daniel Loosli. Thank you all so much for everything you do to allow us to keep doing what we do. 

Fraser: Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you next week.

Pamela: Bye-bye.

Back to Top