Back to the Future: The Outer Space Treaty Turns 40

Tasneem Jamal

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2007 Volume 28 Issue 3

Renewed interest in outer space has been sparked by the Chinese anti-satellite test on 11 January 2007, negotiations to deploy elements of the US Ballistic Missile Defense System in Poland and the Czech Republic, a new US National Space Policy, and calls within Canada for a new space strategy (Salloum 2007; Fergusson and James 2007). But the fortieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) has not been widely acknowledged and has inspired little reflection on the past, present, and future of a treaty so significant to the expansion of one of the last great fields of exploration and accomplishment.


The “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” (1967) or Outer Space Treaty was ratified at the height of the Cold War to provide the basic legal framework for the international governance of outer space. Launched in the era of intense military competition sparked by the launch of Sputnik in 1957, it enshrines the principle that space is a global commons to be used for peaceful purposes for the benefit of all peoples. Like the Antarctic Treaty before it, the OST is a forward-looking agreement intended to “prevent ‘a new form of colonial competition’ and the possible damage that self-seeking exploitation might cause” (US Dept. of State 2007).

Today, when the use of outer space is commonplace, this objective has even greater relevance. In 1967 seven states had satellites in space. Today the number is 47. Space use has expanded beyond what might have been imagined 40 years ago. All around the world people now depend on space capabilities for banking, communications, television transmission and reception, airline travel, land and water resource management, early warning systems, search and rescue, and medical services.

While the OST has been essential to the expansion of our use of outer space, its broad goal of collective security has been challenged by this very success. Growing threats to the space environment, increasing rivalry between civil space programs, an expanding role for space applications in regional conflicts, and the prospect of new technologies to threaten satellites and other assets in outer space are all real and critical concerns. On the fortieth anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, its vision for an outer space to which all peoples have access and from which all peoples benefit is both more attainable and more threatened.1

A more dangerous space environment

Like other environments, space is damaged by human activity, primarily through the creation of space debris. But space is fragile like no other environment. Traveling at speeds of 7.5 km/second, even the smallest piece of space debris can be deadly for spacecraft.

While outer space may seem to provide boundless room for operations, the limited availability of suitable orbits coupled with growing contamination threaten sustainable use. In the first six weeks of 2007, the amount of large space debris (larger than 10 cm in diameter) in popular orbits increased by over 20 per cent due to the Chinese anti-satellite test on 11 January and the explosion of a Russian rocket body on 19 February — two of the worst manmade debris-creating events in history.

Although exceptional, these events reinforce a long-term trend of increasing space debris production. More launches, accidental and intentional explosions and collisions in space, and the natural process of debris breakup are contaminating the environment at rates reminiscent of the height of the Cold War. Despite landmark guidelines that were adopted by the Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on 21 February 2007, the creation of debilitating space debris will continue to outpace mitigation efforts.

Strategic competition in civil space programs

At the heart of the OST is the advancement of civil space programs, which have both fostered international cooperation and technical and scientific achievement but also driven geostrategic competition. In recent years, changes in funding and policy priorities of several space programs indicate the growing rivalry in space, particularly in human space flight and lunar exploration. In 2005 China became the third country to launch a human into space, and India has since announced plans for a human spaceflight program. The US, Russia, Japan, India, China, and the European Space Agency have announced plans for lunar exploration and, in the case of the US and China, the building of lunar bases.

The military tensions that once drove the space race cannot be ignored. Cooperation and rivalry in space tend to follow the geopolitical patterns on Earth, and there are indications that strategic partnerships are strengthening. Of note is the relaxation of US trade restrictions on sensitive space technologies to India at the same time that China is working with key allies such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Venezuela. The OST aimed to reduce the potential for confrontation in space, but as the number of players increases and the stakes get higher, it becomes more difficult to manage political and military tensions.

Space for terrestrial military operations

Since 1967 space has become a way of war as much as a way of life. During the Cold War military rivalry between the US and the USSR, which also threatened the security of space, provided much of the motivation behind the Outer Space Treaty. Today it is possible to see similar tensions between the US and China, although their capabilities in space differ vastly. However, military uses of space are no longer restricted to the superpowers. More and more, regional rivalries are being expressed in space with dedicated military or dual-use space systems. It is believed that much of China’s accumulation of space power is directed at Taiwan, which in turn is suspected of providing its military with images of China from its Formosa II research satellite. In the wake of recent missile launches by North Korea, Japan is considering legislation to increase military use of satellite applications and has enhanced access to satellite imagery in the region. While Pakistan aims to develop remote sensing capabilities to support its military, India is moving forward with plans for a unified military Space Command. A similar expression of regional tensions in space is becoming evident in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and Iran.

While current military uses of space are accepted as peaceful, they increase the risk that actors will target military space assets. In particular, if capabilities in space are not evenly developed then targeting these space assets might become a strategy of asymmetric threat response or deterrence. China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test on 11 January could be seen from this perspective. But China is not the only state with ASAT capabilities. Russia and the US tested kinetic hit-to-kill ASAT systems during the Cold War and the US has an ongoing kinetic energy intercept program. Moreover, with the spread of missile technologies, more states, including North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan, are developing prerequisite ASAT capabilities to launch a payload into space. Growing regional military tensions in space, exacerbated by the growing sophistication of conventional weaponry technology and the silence of the OST on the issue, increase the risk that force will be used in space.

Space-based dual-use technologies

The OST focused on weapons of mass destruction, the immediate threat of the time, in efforts to control conflict and the use of force against space objects. Today, the need to protect against the use of conventional force in space is becoming more dominant and more difficult, particularly as the capabilities of space-based technologies advance. On the one hand, newer, more adaptable technologies such as small satellites facilitate more active space system defences. Small satellites can provide key protection capabilities such as on-orbit servicing, greater maneuverability in space, on-orbit space surveillance, faster hardware replacement, and clusters of defensive satellite configurations. On the other hand, smaller size and greater manoeuvrability can also support more aggressive activities in space. Small satellites are easy to hide and difficult to detect. They can be discreetly released into orbit and approach other satellites.

The potentially destructive capabilities of small satellite technology were demonstrated when NASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) spacecraft unexpectedly collided with the target satellite during its 15 April 2005 mission.

While several dedicated military space programs in the US are developing a range of defensive and potentially aggressive space-based applications, around the world many similar technologies are advancing through other civil and commercial programs.2 The challenge lies not only in protecting against these potential threats in space, but also in identifying them. How do we differentiate between a sword and a ploughshare that is thousands of kilometres away in space, and what are the implications of this difficult task?

Beyond the OST

Forty years after the ratification of the OST, space is still free of weapons, the number of states accessing space continues to rise, and the benefits of space applications touch almost every aspect of human life. This accomplishment speaks to the continuing relevance of the OST as the cornerstone of outer space governance. Yet there are environmental, political, military, and technological challenges to this regime. In many ways these challenges are reminiscent of the concerns that initially drove the creation of the OST, both to prevent outer space from becoming a battleground, and to prevent colonial competition and damaging exploitation. But technologies, concepts, and geopolitics have developed and changed in 40 years, and are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

International bodies have been unable to effectively manage the changing security context in outer space. The Conference on Disarmament, which is tasked with negotiating international disarmament agreements, including the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, has been stalled on a program of work since 1998. And while the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has recently made progress on space debris guidelines, it has not succeeded in including on its agenda issues related to the militarization of space. Institutional dysfunction and narrow scope direct further attention to the need to reconsider how outer space is governed.

The Outer Space Treaty does not include a formal process for international review. And although it contains provisions for international consultation if a planned event might cause harmful interference to the activities of another state, this provision has not been used. The Chinese did not hold international consultations prior to their anti-satellite test. While the details of US intelligence and actions regarding the event are not public, it would appear that the US neglected to request consultations despite evidence of previous Chinese anti-satellite attempts (Gordon & Cloud 2007, p. 1). The OST, while more or less observed, is not engaged, and risks growing stagnant. After 40 years it is time for a review of the letter, spirit, and application of the OST so that it can continue to guide the international community to collective security in outer space.




  1. The Space Security Index (SSI), managed by Project Ploughshares, evaluates the condition of this principle using the concept of “space security,” defined as “the secure and sustainable access to and use of space, and freedom from space-based threats.” Eight indicators examine how space is used for civil, military, and commercial purposes; the impact on the space environment; and advancing technologies for both protecting and damaging assets in space. See West 2007.
  2. Dedicated military programs include the US Air Force’s Experimental Satellite System-11 (XSS-11) and the Microsatellite Demonstration Science and Technology Experiment Program (MiDSTEP) sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Air Force, and Navy.


Fergusson, James & Stephen James. 2007. Report on Canada, National Security and Outer Space. Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, Calgary.

Gordon, Michael R. & David S. Cloud. 2007. US knew of China’s missile test, but kept silent. The New York Times, 23 April.

Salloum, Anthony. 2007. Canada badly needs a national space policy. Embassy. OPED, 20 June.

Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” 1967. US Department of State, Current Treaties and Agreements. 27 January.

US Dept. of State. 2007. Narrative to the Outer Space Treaty.

West, Jessica, ed. 2007. Space Security 2007.

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