When the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was launched on October 4, 1957, it heralded the need for legal regulation of the exploration and use of outer space.
Since then international law has been developed to facilitate the use of technologies such as satellite telecommunications, global positioning systems, remote sensing technology for weather forecasting and disaster management, and television broadcast from satellites.
In this regard, space law has played a positive role by allowing for – and not unduly restricting – the development of space-related technology.
At the same time, the existing legal regime has not prevented the development of military technology capable of utilising outer space.
There are some restrictions, but these were specified in the space law treaties in relatively general terms and were open to interpretation as to what they did (and did not) prohibit.
This is not entirely surprising. The development of space-related technology was inextricably related to military strength, both in reality and to influence the perception of others.
Cold War tensions
It is no coincidence that the space race emerged at the height of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union strove to flex their technological muscles.
The early stages of human space activity coincided with a period of quite considerable tension. The possibility of large scale and potentially highly destructive military conflict between the (space) superpowers always lurked in the background.
The successful launch of Sputnik generated unease in the western world because the technology used was similar to that for ballistic missiles.
It was crucial that efforts were made by the international community to regulate this new frontier in order to avoid a build-up of weapons and armed conflict in space.
The obligations and restrictions were eventually agreed and codified in five major United Nations space treaties. They addressed, in part, some specific military and weapons-related aspects of space activities.
Every year since the early 1980s, the United Nations (UN) has passed a resolution on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space.
But these initiatives were neither entirely clear nor sufficiently comprehensive to meet all of these challenges. The deployment of weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit was banned but this did not extend to other weapons or military systems.