Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States, the Soviet Union, and fifty-eight other countries signed the Outer Space Treaty at the height of the Cold War and the “space race.” The agreement limited the military uses of outer space and proclaimed all celestial bodies, including the Moon, to be neutral territory. The treaty helped build trust especially between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

The twin historical currents that brought about the Outer Space Treaty can be directly traced to World War II. Although the Communist Party had ruled since 1917 in what became the Soviet Union, and had always been mistrusted by most Western powers, it was only in 1945 that the Soviet Union was in the position to rival the strength and influence of other European powers. Thus, the United States became the leading power among the Western democracies and the Soviet Union became the leader of the Communist bloc. Cold War;U.S.-Soviet treaties[U.S. Soviet treaties] Outer Space Treaty (1967) Space, militarization of U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements [kw]Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect (Oct. 10, 1967) [kw]Treaty Takes Effect, Outer Space (Oct. 10, 1967) Cold War;U.S.-Soviet treaties[U.S. Soviet treaties] Outer Space Treaty (1967) Space, militarization of U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements [g]World;Oct. 10, 1967: Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect[09460] [c]Cold War;Oct. 10, 1967: Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect[09460] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 10, 1967: Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect[09460] [c]Space and aviation;Oct. 10, 1967: Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect[09460] [c]United Nations;Oct. 10, 1967: Outer Space Treaty Takes Effect[09460] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Cold War Gromyko, Andrei Andreyevich Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;Cold War

Although it does seem unusual that this competition could lead to cooperation, the Cold War rivalry was one factor leading to the treaty. The second factor was the so-called space race, which was based on the rocket technology developed during World War II. The development of more reliable rockets was one area of competition. This technology could serve both the peaceful exploration of outer space and be the delivery system for space-based weapons of mass destruction.

In October, 1957, the space race was at the forefront, as people around the world searched the sky for a tiny moving dot called Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite that circled Earth. The Soviet Union had won the first round of the race and proved that a human-made object could be placed in Earth orbit. Sputnik was soon followed by the first U.S. satellite, called Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. Both countries pushed their scientists and technicians to develop larger satellites with larger rockets that would allow the satellites to stay in orbit longer. Work also was undertaken to shape the orbits so that they were over certain areas of Earth for longer periods. While military leaders had always understood the strategic possibilities of rockets and satellites, the greater reliability of rockets made their application as part of a weapons system more apparent to those outside the military.

As weapons systems became easier to transport, and became smaller in size for the amount of explosive power each contained, the possibility of space-based armaments became more likely. The first proposal to limit activities in space was made by the United States just prior to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. However, Cold War treaty discussions tended to stall when one side felt it had superiority in the area being discussed. Because the Soviet Union was about to launch the first satellite into space, it had no desire to participate in the discussions. During the next five years the United States and its allies raised the treaty issue several times.

In his last year in office, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower suggested that the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty might be applied to outer space. The Antarctic Treaty (1959) Antarctic Treaty (1959) mandates that no country could claim the Antarctic and that it was only to be used for peaceful purposes, such as scientific research. Events toward the end of 1962 forced the Soviet Union to face that it did not have nuclear weapon or nuclear missile superiority. U.S. president John F. Kennedy had proclaimed that the United States would put a person on the Moon by the end of the decade. With the successful launch and safe re-entry of humans to Earth—first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States—space travel was a reality. In the past, the first persons to reach a new land claimed that land for their respective country. On the minds of many was the question of “land” claims in space. Would modern space explorers be able to claim celestial bodies for their own respective countries? In the mid-1960’s it remained unclear which space program would be the first to successfully reach the Moon, setting the stage for one aspect of the treaty.

For many years the Soviet Union had insisted that any outer space agreement limiting weapons must be part of a more comprehensive treaty that also limited forces on Earth. In the early 1960’s, however, the Soviets were losing ground in the public relations arena of the Cold War, forcing them to examine new strategies, including taking initiative in arms control and cooperation with the United States. At the General Assembly of the United Nations in September, 1963, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko stated that the Soviet Union would like to keep nuclear weapons from outer space. The United States responded positively to the Soviet proposal, leading the General Assembly to pass a resolution endorsing the idea and beginning the process of creating a treaty acceptable to all countries involved in the treaty.

It was not until 1966 that proposals were developed by both the United States and the Soviet Union that were solid enough for talks to move forward at a faster pace. The Soviet proposal was more inclusive than that of the United States, but the proposal was accepted by the United States nonetheless. By the end of the year an agreement was reached, and the General Assembly passed a resolution endorsing it. On January 27, 1967, the treaty was signed by representatives of sixty-four countries and the ratification process was begun. After ratification by more than the required number of countries, ratified copies of the treaty were deposited at the required sites in London, Moscow, and Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1967, the day the treaty took effect.

Just as there were technological and political forces that created the conditions for the treaty, the treaty contains provisions in both areas. In terms of military technology, article four states that no weapons of mass destruction will be put on any natural body or artificial space platform, nor will they be placed in Earth orbit. Article four also prohibits the creation of military bases in space, although military personnel can be used in the peaceful exploration of space. Thus, space is to be a demilitarized area.

Politically, articles one through three make it clear that no country can claim any portion of space as its own and that international cooperation is to be the norm. Additional articles of the treaty stipulated the sovereignty of spacecraft, the responsibility of each country for its own space exploration, and the necessity for cooperation.

Significance

On January 27, 1967, President Johnson signed the Outer Space Treaty and made a statement that focused on its arms-control aspects. He expressed the hope that the conflicts that have plagued humans throughout history would be left behind when they traveled into space.

By keeping weapons of mass destruction from space, the world was made more secure in two ways at least. One, accidents in launching such weapons into orbit or problems if the orbit decayed—sending the weapon back to Earth—could be avoided. Two, one country would not be able to attack another country without warning. Even though ballistic missiles could travel thousands of miles quite rapidly, it was not nearly as short a time from launch to target as it would be if a weapon system were placed in space just a few hundred miles above a rival. The adoption of the Outer Space Treaty epitomized the ideal of international cooperation, and was a major diplomatic step at the height of the Cold War. Cold War;U.S.-Soviet treaties[U.S. Soviet treaties] Outer Space Treaty (1967) Space, militarization of U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];Cold War treaties and agreements Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];Cold War treaties and agreements

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lafferranderie, Gabriel. Outlook on Space Law over the Next Thirty Years: Essays Published for the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Space Treaty. New York: Springer, 1997. A collection of work by members of the European Centre for Space Law, examining how space law fits into the concepts set forth in international law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Office for Outer Space Affairs. United Nations Treaties and Principles on Outer Space. New York: Author, 2006. This book contains the text of five outer space treaties and related principles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Treaty Collection. Treaty Handbook. Available at http://www.untreaty.un.org. An excellent resource on the international treaty process. An online handbook provided by the Treaty Section of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United States. Senate. Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The Moon Treaty: Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2005. Contains a history and analysis of the treaty, with detailed examination of the text. This committee report also examines the principles that will be used when humans return to the Moon or travel to other celestial bodies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War: From the H-Bomb to SDI. New York: Berkley Books, 2005. A contemporary study of Cold War superweapons and how they have influenced U.S. and Soviet geopolitics and diplomacy.

First Nuclear Bomb Is Detonated

United States Launches Its First Orbiting Satellite

Eisenhower Warns of the Military-Industrial Complex

Canada Becomes the Third Nation to Orbit a Satellite

Cuban Missile Crisis

Hotline Is Adopted Between the United States and the Soviet Union

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Goes into Effect

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