Evolution and Historical Background of Space Law

Space law as the name suggests refers to those rules, regulations, principles and guidelines which relate or apply to any activity performed in the outer space. Such activities incorporate both international and domestic activities. Space law like general international law comprises of:

  • Treaties
  • International agreements
  • Conventions
  •  United Nations General Assembly Resolutions
  •  Rules and Regulations of International Organizations.[1]

Some of the challenges to be faced by Space Law are:

  • Preservation of space and the earth’s environment.
  • Provision for liability for any damage caused by space objects.
  • Providing a peaceful settlement of disputes.
  • The rescue and safe return of astronauts.
  • Dispensation of information or knowledge regarding any potential danger in the outer space.
  • Use of space-related technologies.
  • Maintaining international cooperation.

The principles as laid down under the Space Law refer to the notion of “space as the dominion of all mankind, which entitles everyone with the freedom to exploration and use of outer space without any discrimination and the principle of non-appropriation of outer space. Space Law is not a single isolated set of rules and regulations. It is more like a bucket accommodating several fields of law, such as Administrative Law, Intellectual Property Law, Arms Control Law, Commercial Law, etc. We can say that Space Law is analogous to Family Law or Environmental Law; as most of the laws are denoted by what they relate to, Space Law is derived from the rational development of a single legal concept.[2] It can be said that Space Law is a bit vague in its formation. Space Law is called the law of the space, where the location and operation of space are undetermined.

Space Law is considered flexible in its application. At times its mere application of the already existing domestic law, such as a contract to a new field of activity. Meanwhile, it acts as a formal international treaty. It is a minute law, constructed to tackle pragmatic problems resulting from the use and exploration of outer space.

Evolution of Space Law

The evolution of Space Law can be foreseen to have begun with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s introduction of the concept of Space Law in relation to disarmament negotiations into the United Nations in 1957. The persistent space race, following the cold war, between U.S.S.R. and the United States impelled future possibilities in the outer space. Launching of the first artificial satellite “Sputnik 1” in 1957, provided a practical and conceivable way to fulfill the urge of mankind to explore the space beyond.

An active interest was taken by the U.S.S.R. and the United States in the development of the International Space Policy. It was further established that the conventional laws of sovereignty that allowed any state to assert for itself untenanted and benighted lands are not applicable in space territories.

In order to put a check on the International law in space and to unravel the issues caused by the bilateral treaty between the United States and U.S.S.R. in 1958, United Nations came up with a way to provide peaceful exploration by creating a permanent outer space committee, known as the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

Two sub-committees were created under COPUOS, namely:

  • The scientific and technical committee
  •  The legal committee.

The Legal committee was considered as the primary symposium for discussion and negotiation of international agreements relating to outer space.

In the light of the first challenge, i.e., to protect and preserve the environment on both earth and space, the Nuclear Test Ban treaty was signed in 1963, followed by an outer space committee resolution that prohibited nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, the outer space and underwater.

Five treaties under the Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space

  • The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies, or as popularly known as the Outer Space Treaty – It forms the roots of the International Space Law. It is fundamentally a non-armament treaty prohibiting the placing of nuclear weapons in space. It circumscribes the use of the Moon and all other Celestial bodies to peaceful purposes only and reasserts the foremost principle of Space Law, i.e., all nations are free to explore and use space, without claiming sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body. This treaty does not restrict military activities, rather a placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
  • The 1968 Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, also known as the Rescue Agreement – It requires any State party, that is aware of the personnel of a spacecraft being in distress, to notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations about the same. The agreement makes the member States obligated, to provide all possible assistance to rescue the personnel of a spacecraft that has landed in their State’s territory. The landing is due to an accident, distress, emergency, or unintended landing. If the said casualty happens on unclaimed or untenanted land, any State/Nation, in a position to provide assistance, shall search and rescue the operation.
  •  The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damages Caused by Space Objects, also known as the Liability Convention – It provides that the States owe responsibility for all the space objects that are launched within their territory. Regardless of who launches the object, be it state A’s territory, state A’s facility or if state A’s caused the launch to happen, then state A is fully liable for damages that result from that space object. If there is a launch by two States jointly, both of them will be jointly and severally liable for the damage that objects causes.
  • The 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (The Registration Convention) – It requires States to equip that Nations with details about the orbit of each space object. As a result of a General Assembly Resolution in 1962, a registry of launchings is maintained by the United Nations.
  •  The 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies, better known as the Moon Treaty – Any State that indulges in self-launched human spaceflight or has plans to do so, does not ratify this treaty, and thus it does not have much pertinence in International Law.

The Moon treaty comprises of 21 Articles, where Article 1 states that the use of Moon is open to all people of the international community. It also provides that the resources should be used for peaceful purposes, and therefore, comes with some of the following provisions:

  • Prohibiting military use of celestial bodies for weapons testing and nuclear weapons in orbit. However, military personnel for scientific research or any other peaceful purpose is not prohibited (Art 3.4).
  • Provides a chassis of laws to establish an international cooperation regime (Art 11.5).
  • Orderly and safe use of the natural lunar resources with an equitable sharing by all State parties in the benefits derived from those resources (Art 11.7), etc.

In comparison to the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Treaty merely reasserts the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty. However, it had addressed two new concepts in reference to exploitation of natural resources in outer space,

  • To apply the concept of ‘common heritage of mankind’ to outer space activities,
  • To make the participant States prepare a regime providing appropriate procedures for orderly mining.

The other four treaties besides the Outer Space Treaty, solely elaborate the provisions already provided in the Outer Space Treaty. The Moon Treaty was devised to supersede or supplement the Outer Space Treaty by elaborating the provisions of resource appropriation and prohibition of territorial sovereignty of the Outer Space Treaty.


With the passage of time, States have come up with their own Municipal Law clarity in relation to the relationship between the private sector and the public sector in particular. Such enactments govern the launch and operation of objects that go into space, regulations relating to the design and manufacture of the technology that goes into space, the application of space technology, exploration activities and research.

When it comes to India, it has ratified four out of the five treaties and signed one. ‘Ratification’ can be defined as when a country must enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to the treaties within a given time frame. No such legislation has seen the light despite India’s success in venturing the space four decades ago. The only apparatus governing the Space industry in India is determined by the Constitution of India, 1950, the Satellite Communications Policy, 2002 and the revised Remote Sensing Data Policy, 2011. Article 51 and Article 73 of the Constitution of India espouse respect for International Law and treaty obligations and strives for the promotion of international peace and security, yet these notions merely layout with no legal obligation attached to them.[3]

[1] United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

[2] www.spacelegalissues.com

[3] www.mondaq.com

This Article is Authored by Niyati Upadhyay, 4th Year, B.A. LL.B Student at Allahabad University.

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