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  • thomcheney



Last month UNISPACE+50[1] was held at the United Nations in Vienna, it was, in part, a commemoration of the first United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, fifty years ago in 1968. There were two components, a symposium held on 18-19 June which I did not attend (opting to enjoy the Viennese sunshine instead) and the High-Level Forum held 20-21 June which I did attend (well most of it, on Thursday afternoon I opted to attend the ESPI-ESA space law symposium). The High-Level Forum (HLF) was held as part of the regular UNCOPUOS session which is currently ongoing. More details about UNISPACE and UNCOPUOS can be found on the UNOOSA website here. The purpose of UNISPACE is to set the overarching agenda for the next 12 or so years (it’s called the 2030 Agenda[2]) of international space governance, however it was also an opportunity to recognize how far space has come since 1968.


The weather was fantastic

In 1968 there were two space powers, the United States and the Soviet Union and in 1968 it still wasn’t clear which superpower would be the first to land humans on the Moon.[3] The Outer Space Treaty had been implemented the year before and the Rescue Agreement came into force in 1968, three subsequent space law treaties would also be negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations in the next several years (the Registration Convention, the Liability Convention and the ill-fated Moon Agreement.) The foundations for the space governance regime were being laid, although at the time this effort was seen to be more part of the ‘arms control’ endeavour than laying the foundation for the future of humanity in outer space.[4]

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Coffee and programme, ready to go

Fifty years on space and the world looks radically different. Not only has the Cold War ended but space has become not just a domain of commerce but vital and central to our lives in ways that few could truly have anticipated in 1968, nor indeed, do many appreciate today. Therefore, at this moment in time it seems sensible to step back and take stock of the incredible journey we have been on these last fifty and more years and look forward to where we want to go. There were hopeful discussions or proclamations of humans on the Moon, Mars and beyond within the next few decades (and, at least as far of the Moon is concerned, permanently this time) as well as talk of on-orbit servicing (satellite life extension etc), space mining (space resource activities) and more. But there were also darker clouds on the horizon, President Trump had only just ‘announced’ his ‘Space Force’[5] and there have been more prominent discussions of space security issues and space as a ‘warfighting domain’ (these aren’t new discussions[6], but the media seem to be more aware, and they do seem to be moving from potential to reality…) However, one the major changes from 1968 to 2018 is that, while governments are still major players in space, they are no longer the major ‘drivers’ of space. This is a growing potential issue with how discussions at the UN are conducted as while there are a sizeable and reasonably diverse cohort of ‘civil society actors’ attending as observers, industry isn’t really represented. This isn’t a UN problem per se as other areas of the UN system do a better job, such as ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), of incorporating non-governmental actors into the system, but that would probably necessitate an overhaul of the UNCOPUOS system although it may be due for one.


Thanks to Antonio Fowl Stark for the photo

One of the undercurrents of a number of speakers, especially but not exclusively the European ones, was the importance of the rule of law in outer space and the concept of global space governance. These are concepts that find themselves under increasing attack outside of the space sector[7], but there are concerns about the potential for countries ‘to go their own way’ in space governance, there is particularly concern about this with regards to space mining/resources (the accusations of ‘unilateral’ actions by the US and Luxembourg at previous Legal Subcommittees, for example[8]). But also, the voices of those calling for scrapping the Outer Space Treaty are growing somewhat more vocal, particularly in the United States.[9] However, space is inherently a global arena necessitating global governance mechanisms, a truly ‘contested’ outer space domain would become unusable for commerce fairly quickly and a ‘wild west’ outer space would deter investment. Industry recognize this which is why they are involved with groups such as The Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group.[10]

Overall, I found UNISPACE+50 to be an interesting, inspiring and invigorating experience. It truly is amazing to see how far we’ve come in 50 years (the first UNISPACE was held in a world where going to the Moon was still something humans were going to do) but it is more amazing to see what is coming up, and soon. At UNISPACE+100 we’ll be living in a world where asteroid mining, on orbit servicing and Moon Villages could very well be reality not science fiction. There’s a lot of work to be done to get there, but that’s good because I need to earn a living somehow.

Finally, I just wanted to draw your attention to an article written by Michelle Hanlon, co-founder of For All Moonkind, about her experiences at UNISPACE+50 and UNCOPUOS, well worth a read (and check out For All Moonkind too while you’re at it): the article For All Moonkind


[3]Although in retrospect it’s reasonably clear that the US wasn’t really in any danger of losing, especially as the Soviet weren’t exactly participating…

[4]P.J. Blount, ‘Renovating Space: The Future of International Space Law’ (2012) 40 Denv. J. Intl’l L & Pol’y 515; Robert Dallek, ‘Johnson, Project Apollo and the Politics of Space Program Planning’ in Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy eds., Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership (University of Illinois Press, 1997), 81; Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 177-194, 420

[5]Rachel Becker, ‘Trump Directs DOD  to Establish a Space Force in a Surprise Announcement Today’ The Verge 18 June 2018 –

[6]See: Joan Johnson-Freese, Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens (Routledge, 2017); James Clay Moltz, The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests (2nd edn. Stanford University Press, 2011); Joan Johnson-Freese Space as a Strategic Asset (Columbia University Press 2007), Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass, 2002) et al

[7]UK House of Lords International Relations Select Committee Report calls on UK Government to be bold in its defence of the rules-based international order –

[9]Richard Waters and Shawn Donnan, ‘Trump Goes Into Space With Order to Cut Red Tape’ Financial Times 24 May 2018

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