Two nations, a horrible accident, and the urgent need to understand the laws of space

By Khari Johnson

In the beginning there was only one.

It looked like an aluminum beach ball with four car antennas sticking out. Stuffed with radio transmitters, history’s first human-made satellite emitted a spectral beeping signal from its solitary orbit for just three weeks before its batteries died. That was enough to terrify the world.

The Soviet Union’s 1957 surprise launch of Sputnik was, famously, the jump scare that startled the United States into a space race. But in a lesser-known series of events, Sputnik’s appearance also frightened many of Earth’s non-superpowers into taking decisive action. Facing the real possibility—just 12 years after Hiroshima—that Moscow and Washington were about to turn the commanding heights of space into rival platforms for mass annihilation, a group of diplomats at the United Nations began looking for a way to preemptively contain the two rivals. As NASA and the Soviet Space Agency jockeyed to outdo each other’s rockets, a UN committee slogged for 10 years to come up with a treaty that could successfully balance the interests of Russia, the US, and the rest of the world, before it was too late.

The result of their negotiations was called the Outer Space Treaty, and in 1967, 20 nations, including the US and the USSR, quickly ratified it. Among other provisions, the agreement gave all signatories free rein to operate in space “for peaceful purposes,” while barring them from claiming any of the cosmos as sovereign territory. To defuse a zero-sum contest between two superpowers, the treaty enshrined an aspirationally universal, somewhat legally vague idea: that space is “the province of all mankind”—a global commons, like the high seas.

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