In January 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature by the three depository governments—the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Entering into force in October 1967, the treaty provided a basic framework of international space law.

This framework includes many principles which signatory nations need to follow. It states that 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. It also outlines that 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.

Further, the treaty saw astronauts as envoys of all mankind. The treaty also put many restrictions on the signatories. Thus, outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. It further cautions that states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects and dictates that they avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

It is, in some sense, a treaty that one wishes was in force on Earth.

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To understand the context in which this treaty came into being, one needs to go back a decade before its signing. In 1957, the launch of Sputnik 1 by the USSR marked the dawn of the space age. A space race between the US and USSR followed. The whole world watched as the superpowers battled for supremacy in space just as they butted heads on Earth.

Since both superpowers were also nuclear powers, it was widely feared that a nuclear showdown between them in space was merely a matter of time. It must be kept in mind that the space rivalry between the US and USSR was not just a race to outdo one another in terms of science, technology and engineering, but also a matter of national honour and prestige. That is why explorers such as Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong were looked upon as national heroes and paraded all over the world.

Yet, for all this transformation of space into an arena of political contestation, it was also something of a lawless land. Few had foreseen man in space, let alone that space would be something nations would compete over. Space needed protecting.

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In 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty was signed, the Cold War was in full swing. Both the US and USSR wanted to prevent the expansion of the nuclear arms race into a completely new territory. And as space technologies became more advanced, there was a concern that Earth’s orbit and beyond provided a whole new area from which weapons of mass destruction could be launched. That’s why an article in the treaty prohibits countries from putting nuclear weapons in orbit or on other planetary bodies.

The treaty was opened for signature in Moscow, London, and Washington on 27 January 1967. Both the US and Soviet Union signed the treaty on that day and later ratified the treaty, again on same date, on 10 October 1967. India signed the treaty in March 1967; however, it took another 15 years for the Indian Parliament to ratify it in 1982.

The treaty, which has been signed by 107 countries till date, was the outcome of a protracted process of legislation. As discussed earlier, the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviets had already made news headlines across the world. With the dawn of the space age, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was established in 1959 (shortly after the launch of Sputnik) as an ad hoc committee. In 1959, it was formally established by United Nations Resolution 1472.

The aim of COPUOS was to govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity; for peace, security and development. The committee was tasked with reviewing international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, studying space-related activities that could be undertaken by the UN, encouraging space research programmes, and studying legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space.

The committee, at its inception, had only 18 member countries, including the US and USSR. With the passage of time, a few more countries joined the club, and by 1961, the committee was divided into two sub-committees. One looked into scientific and technical aspects, while the other looked into legal aspects. This was the same year that Yuri Gagarin was sent into space by the Soviets.

Just after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space, the UN General Assembly adopted the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space". It recognized “the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes". The declaration also stated that neither outer space nor celestial bodies should be appropriated by any country.

According to the archives of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the Outer Space Treaty was largely based on the aforementioned declaration, which had been adopted by the General Assembly in its resolution 1962 (XVIII) in 1963, but with a few added provisions. Further, the treaty was considered by the legal subcommittee in 1966. After much deliberation and discussion, the Outer Space Treaty was opened for signatures half-a-century ago.

Key points of the treaty

The basic idea behind the treaty was to prevent “space weaponization". And to the merit of this treaty, no signatory nation has violated it by putting a nuclear weapon in outer space or on the Moon. At least as far as we know. The treaty remains one of the most important pieces of space-related legislation in the last half-century.

Article 1, the soul of the Outer Space Treaty, if you will, states that, “The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies. There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation".

The treaty calls for peace, harmony and cooperation among states in the arena of outer space as the race for supremacy in outer space could prove destructive for Earth. Only the great powers possessed both the will and capability to explore outer space, and in this endeavor, they became much more powerful when they started tasting success.

With great power, it is said, comes great responsibility, and the idea behind the treaty was to entrust the great powers with the responsibility of using outer space for peaceful purposes.

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The treaty has been successful insofar as it has been able to achieve its primary goal, which is to prevent the weaponization of space. The reason why the treaty still passes the test of the time is that both the US and USSR came together to agree upon the fact that outer space shouldn’t be used as a battleground.

This coming together, however, was far from straightforward.

As per the US department of state website, “between 1959 and 1962 the Western powers made a series of proposals to bar the use of outer space for military purposes. Their successive plans for general and complete disarmament included provisions to ban the orbiting and stationing in outer space of weapons of mass destruction".

It further states, “Soviet plans for general and complete disarmament between 1960 and 1962 included provisions for ensuring the peaceful use of outer space. The Soviet Union, however, did not separate outer space from other disarmament issues, nor did it agree to restrict outer space to peaceful uses unless U.S. foreign bases at which short-range and medium-range missiles were stationed were eliminated also. The Western powers declined to accept the Soviet approach; the linkage, they held, would upset the military balance and weaken the security of the West.".

The Soviet position changed when the US signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. After that, both powers agreed that they had no intention of orbiting weapons of mass destruction, installing them on celestial bodies, or stationing them in outer space. Once that happened, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on 17 October 1963, welcoming the Soviet and US statements and calling upon all states to refrain from introducing weapons of mass destruction into outer space.

Seeking to sustain the momentum for arms control agreements, the United States—in 1965 and 1966—pressed for a treaty that would give further substance to the UN resolution.

The US department of state finally states that “on June 16, 1966, both the United States and the Soviet Union submitted draft treaties. The U.S. draft dealt only with celestial bodies; the Soviet draft covered the whole outer space environment. The United States accepted the Soviet position on the scope of the Treaty, and by September agreement had been reached in discussions at Geneva on most Treaty provisions. Differences on the few remaining issues—chiefly involving access to facilities on celestial bodies, reporting on space activities, and the use of military equipment and personnel in space exploration—were satisfactorily resolved in private consultations during the General Assembly session by December".

It was after all these twists and turns that the Outer Space Treaty came into being. The treaty, thus, is an example of the kind of outcomes sustained diplomacy can achieve—even when the topic in question is highly contentious.

Martand Jha is a junior research fellow at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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