International space treaties are the glue keeping the final frontier from unraveling into an arena for destructive military weaponry.
Though space is more commonly regarded as the final frontier for exploration, it has also proved to be – as we’ve covered previously – an area of great focus for military technology — for example, satellites for reconnaissance and counter surveillance.).
But the question still remains: what exactly is stopping nations from launching deadly space weapons into Earth’s orbit?
The Outer Space Treaty
If you didn’t grow up during the space race, the idea of a Death Star-esque weapon capable of rendering cities to dust, orbiting above your head at night, may seem outlandish. If you did grow up during the late 50’s, however, the aforementioned concept may sound all too plausible.
In fact, the plausibility of such weapons is so real, that in 1967, it lead to the enactment of a major (and seminal) international space treaty called (takes deep breath) the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies – now known more succinctly as, The Outer Space Treaty.
This treaty forms the basis for much of today’s international space law, and unifies 103 countries around the world in an effort to curtail the weaponization of space; at least partially, that is.
What the treaty does and doesn’t do
The Outer Space Treaty was and still largely is a reflection of the time period it was enacted. Spurred primarily by the space race and the umbrella of the Cold War, its provisions deal most directly with the proliferation of “weapons of mass destruction,” A.K.A. nuclear war.
In particular, and perhaps most importantly, The Space Treaty bars any nation from launching nuclear weapons into orbit or onto any celestial body (i.e. the moon or a distant planet).
Additionally, The Outer Space Treaty prohibits any signatory from using celestial bodies to construct military bases or weapons testing facilities – provisions, which at the time, helped narrowly avoid a tumultuous race to claim territory outer space.
And while the treaty has been mostly successful in its mission to curtail the outright weaponization of space – at least on a catastrophic level, as conventional weapons (missiles, rockets, etc) are still permitted by the treaty – it is a long way off from curbing global militaries’ appetites for military space technology.
In fact, the race to militarize space, from a defensive and non-violent standpoint is arguably more active than ever.
Though the US still boasts the most prolific arsenal of military satellites – 160 to be exact – countries like China are intent on closing in on American hegemony in outer space, and have already aggressively pursued a means to its end.
The Outer Space Treaty is still regarded as one of the most important steps towards nuclear non-proliferation, and has set the stage for the foundation of basic space law as we know it. But that hasn’t prevented military involvement with space technology completely.
Despite the treaty, governments and their militaries from around the world still actively seek dominance of the final frontier.