Who Owns Outer Space?

Like the crossing of the Rubicon, traversing the Karman line marked a point of no return for humanity. In the context of the Cold War, the potential for disaster was palatable. ICBMs were now a reality, and there was no defense. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the acronym of the day, and it was a chillingly accurate description of what any miscalculation by either (later any) nuclear power would bring. This was the Wild West on an international level, without a sheriff.

In the context of international civil law, however, many people held out hope. It had been remarked by both astronauts (American) and cosmonauts (Soviets) that national boundaries on earth were not discernable from space. Boundar­ies on earth, of course, imply the sovereignty of nation-states, and they have been the cause of wars since time immemorial. But there was something about being in space that seemed to strike a humanistic, rather than a nationalistic, chord in those first space travelers.

In 1945, the United Nations was founded among the world’s sovereign states in the hope that it could provide a forum for the peace­ful consideration of issues between states as an alternative to war. The United Nations is large, and through its organizations (its commit­tee structure), programs (such as trade and food programs), and specialized agencies (such as WHO, the World Health Organization), it has assumed many and varied roles in the interna­tional community.11

In 1958, the United Nations set up an ad hoc committee called the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) consisting of 11 Member States. COPUOS became a permanent committee in the U. N. in 1959, with 24 mem­bers. Among the purposes of this body were the promotion of international cooperation in space, the encouragement of continued research and dis­semination of information concerning space, and the study of legal problems arising relating to the exploration of outer space.

The main question confronting CUPUOS was whether a coherent form of international law could be brought to govern human interaction in outer space. If so, what form should it take? In view of international tensions at the time, this was a daunting task.