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A New Outer Space Treaty?

July 21, 1969

July 21, 1969

Forty years ago–on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Excursion Module, The Eagle, touched down on the moon. The following day, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, uttering one of the most famous phrases in history– ““That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”

As a 10-year old child, I watched this momentous event on our little black-and-white television set. And at some time during the coverage, I remember might have been the first reference to international law that I can recall. One of the commentators noted that when the American flag was placed on the moon that did not indicate that the United States was claiming sovereignty over the moon. Rather, the commentator noted, there was a treaty that prohibited states from making territorial claims to the moon.Indeed, there was- the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Forty years later, the Outer Space Treaty has generally served the international community well. No state has claimed sovereignty over the moon or other celestial bodies. States have not placed nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass distruction in orbit or on the moon or anywhere else in outer space as prohibited by Article IV.

Nonetheless, in the wake of a sea-change of events since 1967, one might argue that it is time for a revision to the Treaty. Steve Freeland and Donna Lawyer write in the July 20, 2009 Sydney Morning Herald:

The development of space-related technology has grown exponentially since those pioneering steps by Armstrong. Not only has the use of outer space become strategically vital for the major powers, but space-based technologies have become an essential part of daily life. All of us benefit from this when we watch direct satellite broadcasts of the Ashes, use GPS systems in our cars, listen to weather forecasts derived from remote sensing satellites and fly in aircraft that rely on satellite navigation.

Not surprisingly, the international law of outer space has struggled to keep up with this breathtaking advance in technology. This is a big challenge, more so in view of the strategic and military potential of outer space. While the UN is anxious to avoid a “weaponisation” of outer space, it is clear the conflicts of the 21st century are likely to involve extensive use of space technologies.

True enough. This then leads one to question whether efforts should be made to adapt the Outer Space Treaty in light of new technologies and military strategies. What do you think?

(HT: Stephen Donsen)

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.