Photo: NASA (CC)

The U.S. government did sign as well as ratify the Outer Space Treaty (1967), but we have neither signed nor ratified the Moon Treaty (1979.)  

This past week documentaries which commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission have been airing on the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel as well as on the Discovery Channel.  Many millions of people throughout the world, including myself continue to view NASA’s Apollo missions as being one of the greatest technological achievements in human history and an accomplishment not only for the United States but for the entire world.  Recent movies such as First Man (2018) and Hidden Figures (2016) have reminded people throughout the world that many thousands of aerospace engineers worked closely with the astronauts for endless hours throughout the course of 1960’s to prepare for the Apollo missions.

This past week was also the 50th anniversary of the former Soviet space program’s Luna 15 probe.  The Soviet Luna program had begun in 1958, and the first Luna probes reached the moon in 1965.  The early Luna probes all crashed upon impact, but the Luna probes were still significant because they showed the world that the aerospace engineers who were working in the former Soviet space program did understand the technologies which were involved in sending unmanned probes to the moon.  The Soviet Luna probes of the 1960’s showed that the physicists who were working at the Soviet space agency only needed to revise the design of their deceleration mechanisms, and they’d succeed in their attempts to extract lunar soil samples and return the samples to earth for scientists to analyze.

The Luna 15 probe did not receive much publicity in the world’s media because it crashed upon impact, but it is significant because the Luna 15 mission was the first mission ever in which the former Soviet space agency and NASA had shared information with each other.  The Soviet space agency had sent the details of the Luna 15’s proposed flight path and landing site to the administrators at NASA so that the Luna 15 mission and the Apollo 11 vehicles would not interfere with each other.

The Soviet Luna program continued into the 1970’s, and three of their lunar probes did successfully return lunar soil samples to earth.  The samples which were returned by the Soviet Luna probes in 1970, in 1972 and in 1976 have contributed to astronomy research.

The details of many aspects of the Apollo missions and subsequent space research missions have been shown on numerous television documentaries as well as in in movies, but there are still two aspects of space exploration which are receiving notably little publicity in any media, and that is the role that international law played during the “space race” era of the 1950’s and the 1960’s in establishing the terms which enabled space exploration to begin, as well as the role that international law will need to continue it play with regard to all future space research missions which will occur during the course of  the 21st, the 22nd and the 23rd centuries.  

 The U.S. is the only country in the entire world which has ever successfully sent manned missions to the surface of the moon.  We’ve never signed party to The Agreement Governing The Activities Of States On The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies, which was written in 1979.  As of 2019, only 18 countries have signed and ratified this treaty.  While there have been no manned missions to the moon since 1972, technologies have vastly improved since the 1970’s, and it is only a matter of time until there will be further manned missions to the moon as well as to Mars and its moons.

A Brief History Of International Law Regarding Space Exploration

 In 1958, the United Nations established the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and in 1959, the UN established the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).  These are the two UN bodies which are responsible for establishing, overseeing and administering all laws relating to space exploration.

In 1966, the UN wrote The Treaty On Principles Governing The Activities Of States In The Exploration And Use Of Outer Space, Including The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies (which is commonly referred to as the “Outer Space Treaty”) and the Outer Space Treaty was entered into force in 1967.  The Outer Space Treaty stated that no national government can claim any territory in space as their own property and it emphasized that all space exploration missions are to be done for peaceful purposes.  However, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 did not attempt to establish an international body which would oversee the day- to- day operations which are involved in space exploration and future space colonization.  When the Outer Space Treaty was written in 1966, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space were all that was needed in terms of overseeing the administrative and legal aspects of space exploration missions.

In 1968, staff at the UN wrote The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which is commonly referred to as “the Rescue Agreement.” The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects,  (“the Space Liability Convention”) was written in 1972, and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (“the Registration Convention”) was written in 1974.  The U.S. has government has signed as well as ratified the Rescue Agreement, the Space Liability Convention as well as the Registration Convention shortly after those three conventions were written, but we’ve not signed party to the Moon Treaty.

In 1979, the UN General Assembly wrote The Agreement Governing The Activities Of States On The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies, which was intended to be the fourth follow up convention to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  (Although the Agreement Governing The Activities Of States On The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies is frequently referred to as “The Moon Treaty,” the terms of both 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 as well as the subsequent 1979 treaty are intended to be applicable to all manned as well as unmanned missions to the moon, to Mars, to comets, meteors, all planets and all moons within our solar system.)  

At the time that the 1967 treaty was written, NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs were receiving a lot of publicity in the media throughout the world.  In addition to lunar exploration, both NASA as well as the former Soviet space program had been attempting to send unmanned probes to Mars during the 1960’s, and the former Soviet space program had also sent unmanned probes to Venus.  

 The Skylab project took place in 1973- 1974, the Apollo- Soyuz project took place in 1975, and the Voyager probes were launched in 1977.  By 1979, it was clear to astronomers, planetary physicists, aerospace engineers as well as to the diplomats and ambassadors who were working at the United Nations that at some point manned missions to Mars and its moons will likely begin at some point.  At the time that the five UN treaties regarding space exploration were written, neither NASA nor the former Soviet space agency were yet working on plans to send manned or unmanned missions to comets, but exploration of comets and meteors will also be covered under the terms of these treaties. 

The Voyager probes as well as probes which have been sent to explore Jupiter and Saturn and their moons showed that an increasing number of governments throughout the world are becoming interested in sending unmanned research probes to the further bodies of our solar system.  More recently, the New Horizons probe which has been sent to Pluto and its moons has shown that planetary physicists and rocket scientists are now learning a lot more about the technologies which are involved in sending unmanned probes to the further bodies of our solar system.  Well organized international agencies which oversee the legal aspects of space exploration missions are needed today, and the Moon Treaty does effectively address this.   

How Does The 1979 Moon Treaty Differ From The 1967 Outer Space Treaty?

The 1979 treaty was intended to be the fourth follow- up to the 1967 treaty, and in some ways, the 1979 treaty is similar to the original 1967 treaty.  Both treaties include terms which state that no individual government or country can claim any celestial body as their own territory, both treaties include terms which emphasize that under international law, the moon and all other celestial bodies are intended to be used for scientific research purposes and prohibit all countries from placing any weapons on the moon or any other celestial bodies.  The primary difference between the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1979 and is that the Moon Treaty was intended to establish either an IGO or a series of international agencies which will govern and administer space exploration missions and oversee manned research stations in space. The agencies which are proposed in the terms of the Moon Treaty are not intended to replace the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, rather the proposed agencies would address newer issues involved in space flight, space research as well as space colonization as the technologies involved in space research are continuing to become increasingly complex and space exploration missions are becoming increasingly complex.

As of 2019, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space have still been adequately able to adequately work with all of the various agencies throughout the world which have been sending manned as well as unmanned vehicles into space.  However, the vast majority of space launches are unmanned. Governments in a number of countries are continuing to send telecommunications satellites, surveillance satellites, GPS satellites as well as satellites and probes which are used in various scientific research projects into orbit.  There are only a handful of astronauts aboard the International Space Station at any time. Most credible planetary scientists believe that this will likely change at some point during the 2020’s and that manned space exploration missions will become commonplace.  

Why We’ve Not Signed Party To The Moon Treaty?

There are likely two (2) reasons that the U.S. Government signed and ratified the first four UN Treaties which address the legal aspects of space exploration, but we’ve not signed party to the Moon Treaty.  The first reason is that this treaty has simply become a low priority for the U.S.  

 Many prominent political analysts view the 1979 Moon Treaty as being a failed treaty because only 18 countries have signed party to it.  However, it isn’t necessarily a failed treaty. I believe that the terms of the 1979 Moon Treaty actually do effectively address most of the legal issues relating to current space exploration missions as well as the future of space exploration throughout the course of the 21st, the 22nd and the 23rd centuries, and that if more governments throughout the world would reexamine the terms of this treaty, they would likely sign party to it.

     The second reason that the U.S. government continues to refuse to sign party to as well as consider ratifying the Moon Treaty is that there is a common misperception about the Moon Treaty.  Many governments believe that the terms of the Moon Treaty would require countries to share any resources which would be mined or extracted from the moon. This is significant because many planetary physicists believe that there are likely sizable mineral deposits, including deposits of helium-3 on the moon.  However, this is a misinterpretation of the treaty.  The 1979 Moon Treaty is intended to facilitate the process of international cooperation in space exploration, but it does not require that mineral resources which are mined on the moon and returned to the earth be shared.  Under the terms of the Moon Treaty, sharing minerals which would be mined on the moon and sent back to earth will still remain entirely optional. 

Why Are More Agencies Which Are Intended To Oversee The Legal And Administrative Aspects Of Space Exploration Necessary?

 At the time that the 5 UN treaties which address space exploration were written, the only two agencies in the world which had the funds which are necessary to send manned as well as unmanned research missions into space were NASA and the former Soviet Union’s space program.  One of the most important lessons that NASA and the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities learned from the space race era is that we can accomplish a lot more when we work together as partners sharing our technologies and our resources than we’d ever managed when we were competing against each other.  Today, the PRC, Japan, the countries of Europe, India, Canada as well as Israel all have space agencies, and there are people from 18 different countries who have worked together on designing the international space station.

 In contrast to the space race era of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, today it is not only government agencies which are presently researching the technologies which will be involved in manned space exploration missions.  In the U.S. as well as in other countries throughout the world, private corporations are also investing sizeable sums of money into researching vehicles which could potentially bring astronauts to the moon. And in contrast to the missions of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, the missions which are being researched today are not intended to send people to the moon for only a few days; many credible planetary scientists believe that it will soon be possible to send people to the moon who will live and work there for several months or years.  Today, there are a number of private corporations which are researching asteroid mining, and there are a number of private corporations such as SpaceX which are presently designing plans for manned missions to Mars.

“Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard”

The technologies which would have enabled astronauts and cosmonauts to build manned research stations on the surface of the moon were all understood in the mid 1970’s, and the technologies which would have enabled astronauts and cosmonauts to construct manned research stations on the surface of Mars were well understood by the end of the 1970’s.  While physicists and engineers had described ideas for how to construct manned research stations on both the moon as well as on Mars back in the 1970’s, constructing manned research stations on the moon was considered too expensive to be considered a serious option back in the 1970’s. As of 2019, constructing a manned research station on the surface of the moon would still be a notably expensive project, but planetary scientists suspect that if agencies from governments of a number of countries are willing to pool their resources, we may see the first permanently manned research station constructed on the surface of the moon at some point within the 2020’s.   

 If the earliest preliminary planning meetings for the construction of manned research bases on the surface of the moon will occur at some point in the 2020’s, the U.S. Federal government will have to reexamine our reluctance to sign party and to subsequently ratify the 1979 Moon Treaty. NASA as well as private companies such as SpaceX which are headquartered in the U.S. do intend to continue to cooperate in close partnerships with space agencies of other countries throughout the world, and the administrative aspects of the partnerships will be made far easier if the U.S. would both sign as well as ratify the 1979 Moon Treaty.

And We’re Going To The Polls In 2020 

Since the Moon Treaty was originally written back in 1979, no fewer than seven (7) U.S. Presidents have refused to sign party to the treaty.

 2020 will be an election year.  We’re seeing numerous people from the Democratic Party discussing their platforms on television and radio news shows every day, and we’re reading about the Democratic Party’s candidates in newspapers and on news websites every day now.  I’ve not heard this treaty mentioned even once so far this year either from anybody who is involved with the two major parties, and I’ve not heard any of the potential candidates from any of the third parties mention this treaty yet either. 

The United Nations was founded in 1945.  Over the course of the past 74 years, we’ve learned that when people from numerous agencies from different countries are attempting to work together on various projects, it is usually a lot easier to make progress on the projects that they’re working on together when the governments of the countries which are involved in various projects have signed and ratified conventions and treaties which clearly define the terms regarding the projects that they’re working on.  This has been true when people from different countries are working together on different projects on earth, and this will continue to be true as people from numerous different countries attempt to work together in space exploration missions.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...