Politics of outer space

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The politics of outer space includes space treaties, law in space, international cooperation and conflict in space exploration, international economics and the hypothetical political impact of any contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Astropolitics, also known as astropolitik, has its foundations in geopolitics and is a theory that is used for space in its broadest sense.

An important aspect of the geopolitics of space is the prevention of a military threat to Earth from outer space.[1]

International cooperation on space projects has resulted in the creation of new national space agencies. By 2005 there were 35 national civilian space agencies.[2]

Treaties and policies related to outer space[edit]

Outer Space Treaty[edit]


The Outer Space Treaty, formally the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, is a multilateral treaty that forms the basis of international space law. Negotiated and drafted under the auspices of the United Nations, it was opened for signature in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union on 27 January 1967, entering into force on 10 October 1967. As of February 2021, 111 countries are parties to the treaty—including all major spacefaring nations—and another 23 are signatories.[3][4][5]

The Outer Space Treaty was spurred by the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s, which could reach targets through outer space.[6] The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in October 1957, followed by a subsequent arms race with the United States, hastened proposals to prohibit the use of outer space for military purposes. On 17 October 1963, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution prohibiting the introduction of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Various proposals for an arms control treaty governing outer space were debated during a General Assembly session in December 1966, culminating in the drafting and adoption of the Outer Space Treaty the following January.[7]

Key provisions of the Outer Space Treaty include prohibiting nuclear weapons in space; limiting the use of the Moon and all other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes; establishing that space shall be freely explored and used by all nations; and precluding any country from claiming sovereignty over outer space or any celestial body. Although it forbids establishing military bases, testing weapons and conducting military maneuvers on celestial bodies, the treaty does not expressly ban all military activities in space, nor the establishment of military space forces or the placement of conventional weapons in space.[8][9] From 1968 to 1984, the OST birthed four additional agreements: rules for activities on the Moon; liability for damages caused by spacecraft; the safe return of fallen astronauts; and the registration of space vehicles.[10]

OST provided many practical uses and was the most important link in the chain of international legal arrangements for space from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. OST was at the heart of a 'network' of inter-state treaties and strategic power negotiations to achieve the best available conditions for nuclear weapons world security. The OST also declares that space is an area for free use and exploration by all and "shall be the province of all mankind". Drawing heavily from the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, the Outer Space Treaty likewise focuses on regulating certain activities and preventing unrestricted competition that could lead to conflict.[11] Consequently, it is largely silent or ambiguous on newly developed space activities such as lunar and asteroid mining.[12][13][14] Nevertheless, the Outer Space Treaty is the first and most foundational legal instrument of space law,[15] and its broader principles of promoting the civil and peaceful use of space continue to underpin multilateral initiatives in space, such as the International Space Station and the Artemis Program.[16][17]

Moon Treaty[edit]

The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,[18][19] better known as the Moon Treaty or Moon Agreement, is a multilateral treaty that turns jurisdiction of all celestial bodies (including the orbits around such bodies) over to the participant countries. Thus, all activities would conform to international law, including the United Nations Charter.

It has not been ratified by any state that engages in self-launched human spaceflight (e.g. the United States, Russia (or its predecessor the Soviet Union), or the People's Republic of China) since its creation on December 18, 1979, and thus it has little to no relevancy in international law.[20] As of January 2022, 18 states are parties to the treaty.[21]

Artemis Accords[edit]

The Artemis Accords builds on a number of treaties that affect the conduct of States and their commercial industries in the exploration and use of space, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the 1972 Liability Convention and the 1975 Registration Convention. NASA has stated that in leading the Artemis program, international partnerships will prepare for a historic human mission to Mars while playing a key role in achieving a sustainable and robust presence on the Moon. The core of the Artemis agreement requires that all activities be conducted for peaceful purposes, consistent with the principles of the Outer Space Treaty. International cooperation under the Artemis Agreement aims not only to promote space exploration, but also to strengthen peaceful relations between nations.[22]

Post-detection policy[edit]

A post-detection policy (PDP), also known as a post-detection protocol, is a set of structured rules, standards, guidelines, or actions that governmental or other organizational entities plan to follow for the "detection, analysis, verification, announcement, and response to" confirmed signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.[23] Though no PDPs have been formally and openly adopted by any governmental entity, there is significant work being done by scientists and nongovernmental organizations to develop cohesive plans of action to utilize in the event of detection. The most popular and well known of these is the "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence", which was developed by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), with the support of the International Institute of Space Law.[24] The theories of PDPs constitute a distinct area of research but draw heavily from the fields of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and CETI (Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

Scientist Zbigniew Paptrotny has argued that the formulation of post-detection protocols can be guided by three factors: terrestrial society's readiness to accept the news of ET detection, how the news of detection is released, and the comprehensibility of the message in the signal.[25] These three broad areas and their related subsidiaries comprise the bulk of the content and discourse surrounding PDPs.

Politics of the ISS[edit]

A world map highlighting Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland in red and Brazil in pink. See adjacent text for details.
  Primary contributing nations
  Formerly contracted nations
Politics of the International Space Station have been affected by superpower rivalries, international treaties and funding arrangements. The Cold War was an early factor, overtaken in recent years by the United States' distrust of China. The station has an international crew, with the use of their time, and that of equipment on the station, being governed by treaties between participant nations.

In 1978 a milestone was reached in co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union in space with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The project occurred during a period of détente between the two superpowers, and led in July 1975 to Soyuz 19 docking with an Apollo spacecraft.

From 1978 to 1987, the USSR's Interkosmos program included allied Warsaw Pact countries, and countries which were not Soviet allies, such as India, Syria and France, in crewed and uncrewed missions to Space stations Salyut 6 and 7. In 1986, the USSR extended its co-operation to a dozen countries in the Mir program. From 1994 to 1998, NASA Space Shuttles and crew visited Mir in the Shuttle–Mir program.

In 1998, assembly of the space station began.[26] On 28 January 1998, the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) was signed. This governs ownership of modules, station usage by participant nations, and responsibilities for station resupply. The signatories were the United States of America, Russia, Japan, Canada and eleven member states of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom).[27][28] With the exception of the United Kingdom, all of the signatories went on to contribute to the Space Station project. A second layer of agreements was then achieved, a memoranda of understanding between NASA and ESA, CSA, RKA and JAXA. These agreements are then further split, such as for the contractual obligations between nations, and trading of partners' rights and obligations.[28] Use of the Russian Orbital Segment is also negotiated at this level.[29]

In 2010, the ESA announced that European countries which were not already part of the program would be allowed access to the station in a three-year trial period.[30]

In March 2012, a meeting in Quebec City between the leaders of the space agencies of Canada, Japan, Russia, the United States and involved European nations resulted in a renewed pledge to maintain the space station until at least 2020. NASA reports to be still committed to the principles of the mission but also to use the station in new ways, which were not elaborated. CSA President Steve MacLean stated his belief that the station's Canadarm will continue to function properly until 2028, alluding to Canada's likely extension of its involvement beyond 2020.[31]

On 24 February 2022, NASA said that American and Russian astronauts currently aboard the ISS would continue normal operations despite the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.[32]

Colonialism and imperialism[edit]

Gemini 5 mission badge (1965) connecting spaceflight to colonial endeavours.[33]

Space colonization has been discussed as postcolonial[34] continuation of imperialism and colonialism,[35][36][37][38] calling for decolonization instead of colonization.[39][40] Critics argue that the present politico-legal regimes and their philosophic grounding advantage imperialist development of space[38] and that key decisionmakers in space colonization are often wealthy elites affiliated with private corporations, and that space colonization would primarily appeal to their peers rather than ordinary citizens.[41][42] Furthermore, it is argued that there is a need for inclusive[43] and democratic participation and implementation of any space exploration, infrastructure or habitation.[44][45] Critically it has been an issue in space law that regulations such as the Outer Space Treaty, which guarantees access to space, does not though secure international and social inclusiveness, particularly regarding private spaceflight.[39]

Particularly the narrative of the "New Frontier", has been criticized as unreflected continuation of settler colonialism and manifest destiny, continuing the narrative of exploration as fundamental to the assumed human nature.[46][47][36][41][37] Joon Yun considers space colonization as a solution to human survival and global problems like pollution to be imperialist,[48] as such others have identified space as a new sacrifice zone of colonialism.[49]

Natalie B. Trevino argues that not colonialism but coloniality will be carried into space if not reflected on.[50][51]

More specifically the advocacy for territorial colonization of Mars opposed to habitation in the atmospheric space of Venus has been called surfacism,[52][53] a concept similar to Thomas Golds surface chauvinism.

More generally space infrastructure such as the Mauna Kea Observatories have also been criticized and protested against as being colonialist.[54] Guiana Space Centre has also been the sight of anti-colonial protests, connecting colonization as an issue on Earth and in space.[34]

In regard to the scenario of extraterrestrial first contact it has been argued that being used to employ colonial language would endanger such first impressions and encounters.[39]

Furthermore spaceflight as a whole and space law more particularly has been criticized as a postcolonial project by being built on a colonial legacy and by not facilitating the sharing of access to space and its benefits, too often allowing spaceflight to be used to sustain colonialism and imperialism, most of all on Earth instead.[34]

Neoliberal advocacy[edit]

The trend towards the economicisation of outer space under neoliberalism is having a profound impact on the political ecology of outer space.

Outer space is becoming a space for capitalism. A new era of space commercialisation aims to profit from satellite launches, space tourism, asteroid mining and related ventures. This era, driven by private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, has been dubbed "the new space" by industry insiders." Spatial justice in outer space increasingly means the 'justice' of capital, with capitalism replacing humanity."[55]

Since the mid-20th century, space expansionism has become a popular ideology and, thanks to science, the emergence of technological civilization and the spread of neoliberalism, it has become possible for a wide range of actors, such as national armies and government agencies, scientists and private companies, to carry out a variety of space activities, such as the regulation of outer space through international law, the deployment of missile and anti-satellite weapons, the establishment of exploration, communication and navigation satellites, and space travel for tourism and habitat expansion.Since the mid-twentieth century, spatial expansionism has gone hand in hand with the concept of the world as a 'planetary earth' - going beyond the concept of a 'global earth' associated with the industrial revolution.[56]

There are always costs and benefits in environmental change and these are unevenly distributed along lines of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and geography (among other axes of difference). The environmental geopolitics of outer space is similarly multi-scale, manifesting itself in contemporary debates on pollution issues such as orbital debris and planetary protection agreements. The cultural, legal, budgetary, and infrastructural footprints experienced in the contemporary space race have measurable environmental footprints on Earth and in outer space. The question of where these footprints fall is arbitrated by larger issues of geopolitical power and vulnerability, which means that human participation in outer space is also a matter of environmental justice.[57]

See also[edit]


  • D. Deudney and M. Glassner; Political Geography
  1. ^ promotional material for "Meta-Geopolitics of Outer Space" by N. Al-Rodhan
  2. ^ Peter, Nicolas (2006). "The changing geopolitics of space activities". Space Policy. 22 (2): 100–109. Bibcode:2006SpPol..22..100P. doi:10.1016/j.spacepol.2006.02.007.
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  5. ^ In addition, the Republic of China in Taiwan, which is currently recognized by 13 UN member states, ratified the treaty prior to the United Nations General Assembly's vote to transfer China's seat to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1971.
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  13. ^ "Space Law: Is asteroid mining legal?". Wired. 1 May 2012.
  14. ^ Who Owns Space? US Asteroid-Mining Act Is Dangerous And Potentially Illegal. IFL. Accessed on 9 November 2019. Quote 1: "The act represents a full-frontal attack on settled principles of space law which are based on two basic principles: the right of states to scientific exploration of outer space and its celestial bodies and the prevention of unilateral and unbriddled commercial exploitation of outer-space resources. These principles are found in agreements including the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Agreement of 1979." *Quote 2: "Understanding the legality of asteroid mining starts with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Some might argue the treaty bans all space property rights, citing Article II."
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  21. ^ Cite error: The named reference Moon Treaty untdb was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
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Further reading[edit]

  • Dolman, Everett C. Ed. Colin S. Gray and Geoffrey Sloan. "Geostrategy in the Space Age." Geopolitics, Geography and Strategy. Frank Cass: Portland, Oregon, 2003. pp. 83–106. ISBN 0-7146-8053-2
  • ^ Eric Cardiff of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, as quoted at http://www.physorg.com/news66314743.html

External links[edit]