It’s Time to Rethink The Outer Space Treaty

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While we continue to have global political disagreements, space exploration is often considered a way for countries to collectively work for the advancement of human race.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, Earth’s first artificial satellite into the low earth orbit. With this achievement, human civilization entered into a new age of exploration, what we called the space age. Six decades later, we have thousands of satellites orbiting our blue marble. The launch of Sputnik 1 also marked the beginning of a race in the space between the world’s two largest powers — the United States of America and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, space exploration, that was once viewed by the world as a peaceful step towards a better future began to look like an ingredient of catastrophic warfare. To curb attempts of militarizing space, the international community comprising of several countries reached on an agreement and in the process formed the Outer Space Treaty to ensure that space remains open only for conflict-free explorations.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967

The Outer Space Treaty, formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, defines the fundamentals for forming the international space law. The treaty was enforced on October 10, 1967, after being signed by several nations in January 1967. As of October 2018, the treaty has 107 countries as its members while 23 countries have signed the treaty but are yet to ratify.

The treaty forbids any country or government from claiming any outer space territory or celestial body as its own. The treaty also states that space exploration should be equally accessible to all countries for the benefit of mankind. The treaty specifically restricts experimentation, deployment, and installation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space, especially in orbit around the planet. These restrictions also prohibit the establishment of military bases and fortification of celestial bodies.  

The Problems With The Outer Space Treaty

Five decades since the Outer Space Treaty treaty was implemented, the Earth’s space exploration has evolved in ways beyond our expectations.  We have established our presence in space by sending satellites and probes to multiple planets including several successful rover landings on Mars’ surface. The vision of space exploration now includes colonization of Mars and other planets. Our understanding of several aspects of outer space is becoming clearer with the use of telescopes capable of piercing into deep space.

When the outer space treaty was formed, space exploration wasn’t as complex and controversial as it is now. The treaty was introduced to address the growing concerns regarding the space race between US and Soviet Union during the cold war. At the time, the Outer Space Treaty played a pivotal role in ensuring that the planet is protected from space-based nuclear weapons.

Image Source: SpaceX

Now, private players are entering the space race to capitalize on the vast opportunity it presents, subsequently commercializing space exploration. Several countries have satellites in orbit dedicated only for military use. There is no more a need of weapons of mass destruction in space for significant damage since there are other ways to cripple an opposing nation from space. Even the creators  of the 50-year old treaty couldn’t have anticipated such developments in the future. Thus, the treaty doesn’t cover these advancement, making it obsolete to deal with current issues in space exploration.

Increasing Militarization Challenges

Earlier this year, United States President Donald Trump proposed the idea of “Space Force” which is expected to become the sixth branch of the US military. The idea itself is not new., Nations around the globe have been exploring the space for this purpose for a while now. A good example of which is China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force. People are often unaware of the fact that a large number of satellites are actually launched into space by armed forces rather than the scientific community.

Launching satellites into the space for military dominance can be a potential cause a space war scenario, which is a pressing issue. The militarization of space can have some serious implications, and some of its outcome may not be good for future of humankind. As a precaution, the use of space for extensive military purposes has always been discouraged by many intellectual minds.

Although the half-century-old treaty has banned the use and installation of weapons of mass destructions into space, nations are adamant on finding ways to ensure their dominance over the orbital plane and possibly beyond. Countries like USA and China have already demonstrated their ability to destroy orbiting satellites by using anti-satellite missiles. Considering the technological prowess of many nations, any potential installation of space-to-ground weapons doesn’t seem far-fetched.

The issue here is not just setting up military bases on celestial bodies, but a missile attack from space can be significantly disastrous. Even the use of conventional weapons can possibly lead to space warfare where countries can destroy each other’s critical satellites, significantly limiting reconnaissance capabilities and military operations of their opponent. However, in such cases, debris from a destroyed satellite can damage other satellites or even make its way to the earth’s surface.

It’s Time for Change

Over the past few years, many nations have been vocal about abandoning or improving their obsolete laws to make them compatible with current scenario. So why should the world continue to rely on an old treaty that is inefficient to tackle current issues in space exploration?

We need a space treaty that clearly defines the limitations and nature of use of space for military purposes. Another issue to be addressed is increasing commercialization of space, which encourages for establishing some rules for defining the scope of commercializing space exploration.

The responsibility of ensuring the use of space for the benefit of humans ultimately falls on nations that are indulging in militarizing space. In the light of current happenings and after considering the ineffectiveness of past efforts of preventing the use of space beyond the set boundaries, the future of space exploration doesn’t seem bright without some decisive and sound space laws.

Space exploration holds several possibilities that one day might decide the fate of the entire human race. It is very instrumental for shaping the future that what do humans choose to do with rising opportunities as a result of our ever-advancing space-faring capabilities.    

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