The question, “Who owns Outer Space?” seems absurd, on the face of it. I mean, Outer Space is that seemingly infinite place, of which we are but the tiniest speck. Only the most arrogant of nations and people could ever lay claim to ownership of Outer Space.
Certainly we must not have a military arms race that takes place in Earth orbit, the Moon, or elsewhere in the Solar System. We also need to be strongly skeptical about commercial ventures in Outer Space. Even though I admire Elon Musk, I was taken aback at his suggestion that Mars needs to be “nuked” in order to make it fit for human habitation.
With the current state of technological expansion, what will curb the nationalistic and commercial hubris of thinking someone can own Outer Space? Now that more nations are activating their own space programs, are we all on the same page regarding peaceful use of Outer Space? Is international law up to date regarding private corporations exploring and mining the Moon and the Solar System?
If some nation and/or corporation sets up shopkeeping on Jupiter’s Ganymede how can we ensure that their activities will be beneficial and not harmful to inhabitants of planet Earth? Will Outer Space be exploited like the American “Wild West” of the 19th Century? Can some country like China or the United States build a covert military facility there without worry of any international oversight?
Even before the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik, American officials became worried about the implications of the new field of rocketry and mankind’s ability to send technology into orbit. Then, between 1959 and 1962, the West proposed a ban on the use of Outer Space for military purposes. The ban would be similar to the principles of the Antarctic Treaty. That international agreement states that no nation can claim, as national territory, any portion of Antarctica. Exploration and use of Antarctica may be done only for scientific and beneficial purposes.
Since there was a cold war going on, the USSR was skeptical of Western motives. The Soviets wanted a general disarmament, not just disarmament of Outer Space. The West declined the Soviet idea out of hand. However, as the 1960s wore on, the Soviet Bloc and the West became more open to control agreements. The Limited Test Ban Treaty ushered in this more friendly approach.
In October of 1963, The United Nations General Assembly unanimously resolved to call upon all nations to refrain from introducing weapons of mass destruction into Outer Space. The West hoped to sustain this momentum and press for a treaty of substance that would supercede a mere resolution.
By mid June of 1966, the US and the USSR submitted draft treaties. The US draft covered only celestial bodies like the Moon and planets. The Soviet draft concerned the entire space environment. The US accepted the Soviet proposal and discussions regarding a final treaty began in Geneva.
The heart of the treaty stated that nuclear or other means of mass destruction will not be placed in orbit nor be installed on the Moon or other celestial body. In addition, the Moon and other celestial bodies will be restricted exclusively to peaceful purposes. The treaty would explicitly prohibit military bases, fortifications, and installations of any kind. Military maneuvers and weapons testing were to be expressly forbidden.
Minor differences were ironed out during the UN General Assembly session by December of 1966. On January 27, 1967, the Treaty was approved for signatures at London, Moscow, and Washington. In the US, the treaty was sent to the Senate for required ratification. On April 25th, the Senate unanimously consented. The Treaty entered into force on October 10, 1967.
Many major changes in Outer Space exploration have evolved in the 48 years since the Outer Space Treaty was signed. Proposals, such as Musk’s Martian nukes, represent a grey area regarding weapons of mass destruction on celestial bodies. The same goes for the proposals to divert wayward asteroids away from collisions with the Earth by detonating nuclear bombs on or near them.
The treaty and international law is very ambiguous regarding nations and private corporations setting up mining facilities on the Moon and celestial objects. Who will have the rights to mine and own the raw materials from Outer Space? Many officials and corporations think that we need to revisit the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to amend it and otherwise update it.
In a way, we return to the question, “Who owns Outer Space?”
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes this thought from political and social scientist Susan George: “Now we are flying off into Outer Space, there is no clear curb on what can be done in the name of the economy.”