Today, the United Nations commemorates the 55th anniversary of First Human Space Flight. On April 12, 1961, the first human went to space. The UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution on April 7, 2011 for the International Day of Human Space Flight.
This date serves as an opportunity to reaffirm the “important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples, as well as ensuring the realization of their aspiration to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes.” (UN Resolution, A/RES/65/271)
Outer space has a very interesting legal history that is summarized on the ABA’s Space Law 101 page. Shortly after humanity developed the ability to fly airplanes, it was determined that a nation’s sovereignty extended vertically to include all airspace within its boundaries.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, in 1957, it was unclear whether national boundaries would extend into outer space. If they did, Sputnik–and Yuri Gagarin–would have violated the sovereignty of many nations by orbiting the Earth, in the same manner as the United States would have when Alan Shepard orbited the Earth less than a year later. Thus, a distinction was made between spacecraft and aircraft that began the field of space law.
In 1967, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies–often referred to much more simply as “the Outer Space Treaty”–established the framework upon which modern space law is built.
In the twentieth century, virtually all manned space activities were carried out by state agencies. Under space law, legal responsibility for space objects and personnel was assigned to the nation states. In recent years, however, we have witnessed the development of privatized space travel. The development of private companies going into space raises many interesting legal questions that will certainly be addressed over the coming years.
The space industry is responsible for many of the technological developments which we take for granted today. The Apollo Guidance Computer, for example, was one of the first integrated circuit-based computers. This allowed for a significant miniaturization of a computer that otherwise would have been far too large to fit into a space capsule. NASA has a list of technological benefits resulting from space exploration.
For more Space Law resources, check out the links below:
- Documents and Resources from the United Nations and the United Nations Coordination of Outer Space Activities
- Space Law page by the United National Office for Outer Space Affairs collects National Space laws and Treaties and Principles of Space Law
- National Space Policy of the United States of America and fact sheet from the White House
- Federal Aviation Administration has the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and information on Aviation and Space Education
- Several International organizations: International Institute of Space Law, International Academy of Astronautics, and International Astronautical Federation
- Library of Congress has a collection: Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: From Galileo to Sagan and Beyond
- And, of course, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)