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Alternative Futures for Space Policy

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here:

By Matthew Morris


Shortly after the USSR launched Sputnik 1, in 1957, the international community began working to establish international policy to govern activities in space. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and then the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) took the lead on authoring and implementing international space mandates. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) remains the cornerstone of accepted legal framework within the space domain, but the dated treaty contains several gaps and overall vagueness. While tensions among the major space powers U.S., Russia, China, and Europe are not new, the notion of a war in space is a recent development. Given the rapid advancement of space-based capabilities, it is only natural for adversaries to set their sights on vulnerabilities. These developments are important to note, as tensions in space are not exclusive from terrestrial conflicts, rather are intertwined in the complexities of geopolitics. The rapidly evolving space domain requires updated policy to police activities in space; however, policy takes a great deal of time to generate and ratify. Perhaps the more realistic approach to policing the space domain is to establish an agreed set of space norms.


The ambition to “boldly go where no one has gone before” has long been a human desire, even before humanity knew it would be possible to put a man on the moon or robots on Mars. Space sparks our natural curiosity to understand how the universe works. The interest in the space domain is not merely science and exploration; but perhaps more importantly, encompasses national and global security. In 1957, when the USSR launched the first ever satellite called Sputnik 1, the international community demonstrated its concern regarding the launch of weapons into space. The United Nations (UN) and other multilateral committees began discussions regarding peaceful activities in space and set forth to establish widely recognized policy and regulation. The first of these was called the Treaty on Principles Governing Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty), which was enacted on October 10, 1967.[1]. Currently ratified by 111 nations[2], the Outer Space Treaty has remained the foundation for all other international policies and practices. While the OST is still relevant, the vague language does not provide detailed guidance on “best practices” in space. The OST discusses prohibited activities on the Moon and celestial bodies but fails to include cislunar zones and the rest of outer space. In addition, the OST prohibits the emplacement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space; however, it does not prohibit (or even mention) the emplacement of conventional weapons in space. These gaps are increasingly relevant given the increasing number of players in space, and subsequent activities in space that are widely perceived as hostile (or at the very least, reckless). This paper aims to identify existing gaps in policy, namely the OST, and provide subsequent recommendations and solutions. Does the world need more hard-lined rules and regulations? Maybe not, but widely accepted space norms seem to be attainable and decision makers are exploring their options, which will be discussed later in this paper.

U.S. Space Policy

The international community, particularly the United Nations (UN), began talks on preserving space exploration for peaceful purposes in the late 1950s. Subsequently, the UN began multilateral talks with the United States and Soviet Union to draft treaties regarding the employment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space. The first of these treaties, the Outer Space Treaty (OST), was signed and enacted in October 1967.[3]. While the Outer Space Treaty has seventeen articles, its primary purpose is to ban the stationing and employment of nuclear weapons and WMD in outer space and prohibit any nation from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies.[4]

On December 3, 1968, the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, Return of Astronauts, and Return of Objects Launched into Space (Rescue Agreement) entered into force. With the understanding that launching states may not have complete control of personnel, in instances of distress, and may require support from other space faring nations. Signatories agreed to provide assistance to launching states in the recovery of astronauts, satellites, and other space objects that land within their jurisdiction. Signatories are also obligated to notify the launching state and the UN Secretary General upon recovery.[5]

As a refinement to Article XII of the Outer Space Treaty, in September 1972, the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (Liability Convention) stipulates that the launching state shall be liable for any damage caused by its space objects. This included damage to aircraft, or objects on the surface of the Earth.[6]

The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (Registration Convention), was entered into force on September 15, 1976. The Registration Convention expands upon Outer Space Treaty Article VIII, which requires space objects to be registered. According to the Registration Convention, all space objects must be registered and catalogued within the launching State, and also registered with the UN Secretary General.[7]

The Commercial Space Act of 1998 is a law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in October 1998 and was developed to “encourage the development of a commercial space industry” in the United States.[8] Later, in 2015 the U.S. Space Launch Competitiveness Act became public law.[9] In part, the U.S. believed that commercializing the space domain would help expedite the development of the International Space Station, and subsequent economic markets within the space domain.[10] Ultimately, by leveraging commercial entities, costs to the Federal Government would hopefully be reduced.

Outdated Policy

Before we discuss the future of space policy, a more focused examination of current policy is necessary. While the intent of the OST is clear, the broad terms within the articles leave room for interpretation. In theory, a nation could launch or station warheads in outer space and claim that these weapons do not fall under their WMD definition, particularly if they are not nuclear. Additionally, the OST notes that space exploration must be used for peaceful purposes, while such purposes are not clearly outlined or defined. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) was established in 1959, and has attempted to provide clarity on peaceful uses, despite this there is only a vague agreement on language. The OST explicitly states that, “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”[11] However, the restrictions do not apply to interplanetary space – cislunar space, and the spaces between planets. The OST refers to “nations” and “states,”[12] but does not specifically refer to private space industry players. However, the Cologne Commentary on Space Law did note that commercial space actors fall under the nation in which their business is located, in addition the Treaty is public international law, so such activities by private actors is regulated by the launching state.[13]

It is also worth noting that the treaty took some ten years to author and ratify, following the successful launch of Sputnik. The point being, policy takes time to be enacted and quite often lags behind current geopolitical, technological, and environmental changes. For example, in October 1957 – less than a week after the launch of Sputnik – U.S. President Eisenhower’s administrative representative to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, presented a speech in which he plead for space-faring nations (and aspiring space-faring nations) to create an international inspection system to ensure that space launches were used exclusively for peaceful purposes. These statements and proposals would have meant that the U.S. would willingly work towards solely “peaceful” uses of space, and withdraw any attempts at militarization (to include defense and deterrence) of space.[14] While Lodge’s speech was well-received, the geopolitical environment, namely tensions between the U.S. and USSR, prevented his notions from coming to fruition.

Two years after Lodge made his proposal, the Eisenhower Administration published its official U.S. Policy on Outer Space in 1959. The inaugural policy shifted language from exclusively peaceful space endeavors, to include verbiage which included “military utilization of outer space” and space activities related to “national security.” The policy even references Lodge’s proposal, and subsequent lack of multinational support which is evident from the excerpt below.

“There is a frequent and sharpening concern on the part of world opinion over the military implications of unchecked competitions in outer space between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and there is an accompanying interest in international agreements, controls or restrictions to limit the dangers felt to stem from such competition. With regard to the armaments control aspects of outer space, the United States first proposed in 1957, in connection with international consideration of an armaments control system, that a multilateral technical committee be set up to attempt to design an inspection system to ensure that sending of objects through outer space will be exclusively for peaceful purposes. Furthermore, the United States has offered, if there is a general agreement to proceed with this study on a multilateral basis, to join in this study without awaiting the conclusion of negotiations on other substantive disarmament proposals. There has not, to date, been multilateral agreement to proceed with such a study, and U.S. policy has not been determined concerning either the scope of control and inspection required to ensure that outer space could be used only for peaceful purposes or the relationship of any such control arrangement to other aspects of an arms agreement.” [15]

In a mere two years’ time, the U.S. perspective on space utilization shifted from mostly peaceful employment, to considering the current and future military applications of outer space. Although, some may argue that military presence is required to maintain peace.

Fast forward to the year 2021, fifty-four years after the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty, domestic and international policies have nearly all detoured from strictly peaceful vocabulary, excluding celestial bodies, and included language pertaining military uses for outer space, national security implications, and countering threats in outer space. The U.S. National Space Policy, signed by former President Donald Trump in December 2020, was particularly explicit in the nation’s utilization of space for the security and defense sector.

All nations have the right to explore and to use space for peaceful purposes and for the benefits of all humanity, in accordance with applicable law. Consistent with that principle, the United States will continue to use space for national security activities, including for the exercise of the inherent right of self-defense. Unfettered access and freedom to operate in space is a vital and national interest.

The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the right to pass through and conduct operations in space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights. Consistent with the defense of these rights, the United States will seek to deter, counter, and defeat threats in the space domain that are hostile to the national interests of the United States and its allies. Any purposeful interference with or an attack upon the space systems of the United States or its allies that directly affects national rights will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain at our choosing.”[16]

International organizations too adopted the notion of including space in military doctrine. In 2019 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) published NATO’s Space Policy and recognized space as an operational domain. At the 2021 Brussels Summit, NATO added to the policy by noting that “attacks to, from or within space present a clear challenge to the security of the Alliance and could lead to the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.” [17]

Alternate Futures for Space

Considering the aforementioned geopolitical tensions among leading space powers, current and impending technological capabilities, and prevailing space policy, law, and ability to enforce such policies; the space domain will likely continue down one of three paths:

  1. Space faring nations can give up peaceful resolutions and prepare for war in space.
  2. Great powers can work to mitigate conflict through restraint and deterrence measures; and set the standard for less prolific space faring nations
  3. Space faring nations can reject military options and increase efforts to build new agreements and mechanisms to develop space peacefully and multilaterally.

War in Space

An increasingly likely geopolitical future is conflict extending into space. All great powers consider[18] space as an operational military domain, and NATO even listed space as the fifth operational domain, alongside land, sea, air, and cyber.[19] James Clay Moltz notes in The Politics of Space Security, “…a cycle of action-reaction arming is the virtually unavoidable conclusion once space is intentionally weaponized by one state.”[20] This notion claims that at some point there will be conflict in space. It is doubtful that such a conflict would involve spaceships and light sabers, but intentional targeting of satellites and/or ground stations is almost certain. To what degree such a conflict would occur remains unknown; however, international pressure to limit space debris will likely be leveraged to limit fallout from hostile actions in space. Military expert Norman Freidman suggests that “the only really effective way to conduct warfare against space assets would be to attack their ground-based control and downlink facilities.”[21]

Restraint and Deterrence

For decades, geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War escalated. Yet, the two superpowers practiced deterrence by rapidly increasing their own nuclear weapons arsenals and military capabilities. Neither nation truly wanted a war, as the fall-out would likely be irreparable. In turn, despite having the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, both nations also practiced cooperative restraint.

The current space environment almost mimics the Cold War, however the dynamics are more complex. Instead of having a conflict between two nations, the space arena involves many space powers – though the U.S., Russia, China[22], and the European Union are most influential. The dynamics between each party are varied, and even involve bilateral and multilateral alliances. Actions and rhetoric between the great powers help establish a precedence for “Middle Powers”[23] and less prolific space faring nations. Additionally, there remains more unknowns regarding the space domain than the Earth’s surface. A few catastrophic space debris-generating events in LEO could prevent space activities for decades, if not longer. Given the results such actions, kinetic attacks in space are not likely in the near term. Nations will continue to build their space weapons, and overall capacity through civil, commercial, and military build-up. This growth in capacity will in turn deter adversaries from taking hostile action. This course of action was mirrored by statements from National Space Defense Center (NSDC) Director, Colonel Scott Brodeur, “Our mission is to deter aggression, defend capabilities and defeat adversaries in the event of conflict. One measure that the NSDC takes to prevent or delay adversarial hostile actions in space is our ability to provide space domain awareness. Understanding what is in the space domain, where it is in the space domain and most importantly understanding why/intent in the space domain allows us to provide adversary threat indications and warning to our space enterprise.”[24] Lastly, the top space powers will likely employ cooperative restraint from targeting adversaries in space, for fear of reprisals that may not take catastrophic space debris into consideration. Of note, deterrence and restraint only work if all parties involved follow the rules. Once the metaphorical gloves come off, the rules tend to be discarded.

Multilateral Peaceful Agreements

The opposite end of the spectrum from war in space, is a radical view that the world can simply develop, ratify, and enforce new treaties that prevent hostilities in space. A notable gap in the OST is the possibility of allowing conventional weapons in space, as the treaty explicitly prohibits WMDs and nuclear weapons in space. There is also great concern over “dual-use” objects in space. For example, Russia condemned the use of a robotic arm attached to the U.S. Space Shuttle, likely for fear of using the arm to target Russian satellites. Although Russia now has satellites with the same robotic appendage.[25] There are many international disagreements regarding “peaceful use of space,” and everybody claims they are simply trying to protect their assets from bad actors. The identification of a bad actor depends on the identity of the accuser, of course. The point being, it is very unlikely that the main space faring nations will come to a series of legally binding agreements regarding acceptable use of the space domain. One action that could compel the international community to come to the table would be a sort of “nexus” event, akin to activities listed in the War in Space section. If a kinetic event resulted in large amounts of space debris that escalated to the point of disrupting an entire orbit, the international community would hopefully be compelled to come together to prevent further escalation from occurring.

This paper has already delved into current policy and deduced that the OST is arguably not sufficient to prevent the weaponization in space. In turn, the militarization of space has largely already occurred. As noted by space lawyer, U.S. Air Force (USAF) Major Jeremy Grunert, “the OST in conjunction with the Limited Test Ban Treaty sought to regulate military – and most especially, nuclear- activity in outer space.” Grunert later noted that leading space powers U.S., Russia, and China have the perception that the OST does not necessarily prohibit conventional weapons in space, as the focus is on nuclear weapons.[26] When presented with the question as to whether the OST prevents the weaponization in space, the Space Policy Advisor on the Joint Staff, Dr. Brad Townsend, replied with an unequitable, “No, the OST lacks any real limitations on the weaponization of space, it merely limits the placing of WMDs into space.”[27]

Space Norms

Although establishing more specific policies and treaties among space-faring nations sounds ideal, the likelihood of getting all interested parties to the table and establishing agreements is slim. Additionally, ratifying hard-lined policies may impose restrictions that impede agility in space. USAF Major Grunert noted that “the U.S. can continue to engage the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its international allies, while continuing to develop its own national space laws and policies,” but the severe lag in which it takes to ratify treaties will have difficulty keeping pace with the current and ever-changing space environment.[28] Perhaps a more favorable, and more likely approach is to establish space “norms” rather than new treaties that could be too restrictive. On July 7, 2021 U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signed a formal memo with the subject “Tenets of Responsible Behavior in Space.” The memo provides five tenets for responsible military behavior in space, although how to achieve these tenants is not outlined:

  1. Operate in, from, to and through space with due regard to others and in a professional manner.
  2. Limit the generation of long-lived space debris.
  3. Avoid the creation of harmful interference.
  4. Maintain safe separation and safe trajectory.
  5. Communicate and make notifications to enhance the safety and stability of the domain.[29]

Additionally, in August 2021, USSPACECOM Commander General James Dickinson publicly called for international norms in space. Dickinson noted that key space faring nations could establish a norms alliance from a position of strength, which could pressure adversaries to adhere to said norms.[30] The recent vocalizations from U.S. government officials will likely garner support from international partners, with the intent of pressuring nations such as Russia and China to adhere to established norms. For example, the UN General assembly adopted resolution A/RES/75/36 on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors.[31]

In her paper Building Normentum: A Framework for Space Norm Development, space policy analyst Robin Dickey proposed establishing norms for space operations to protect the “safety, stability, security, and sustainability of the space domain.”[32] Along with the proposition, Dickey also outlined a detailed framework as to how to actually initiate and implement norms.

  • Establish domestic buy-in through interagency coordination. Requires agreement among space, political, public (academic, industry, etc.) and security sector interagency. Norm leader must have its own house in order prior to engaging with partners.
  • Select initial international negotiating partners. Identify the more prolific and influential space allies. Can be comprised of unilateral or multilateral agreements.
  • Choose diplomatic mechanisms for generating international commitment.
  • Set a target for which and how many states need to support the proposal for it to be considered a norm.[33]

While the framework looks favorable on paper, Dickey notes that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, and negotiators must remain flexible when establishing norms.[34]


After six decades of space history, the future of space security remains undecided. However, a great deal of hope remains. Space powers have long-practiced deterrence and restraint in space, despite a contentious geopolitical environment. Just as during the Cold War era, superpowers continue to vie for space superiority through dominance in orbit and on the ground. Less dominant nations avoid conflict with more dominant nations, while dominant nations express restraint in not taking action in a way that could destabilize the space domain.

It remains unlikely that the world’s leading space powers are going to come to the table, shake hands, and ratify a series of legal agreements; however, establishing an alliance of informal space norms is very realistic. Member states that agree to follow proposed space norms will impose peer pressure on those who do not act accordingly, as they did following China’s 2007 ASAT test. More recently, in November 2021, Russia conducted a direct-ascent ASAT test which resulted in at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris. Officials from the Pentagon, State Department, and NASA publicly condemned the test, which Russia reacted by calling the claims hypocritical.[35] International organizations such as NATO[36] and the EU[37] also condemned the ASAT test. While the Biden Administration[38], U.S. Secretary of Defense, and Commander of USSPACECOM have recently announced a movement towards norms for military activities in space, the actual framework is still very much in the nascent stages. Domestic buy-in will likely come easily, but establishing agreements with the right partners will be more challenging. In turn, those spearheading the norm movement must consider and include the rapidly growing and highly-lucrative commercial space industry – as with money comes influence. This should be done from the beginning, and not as an afterthought.

Nobody actually wants a war in space. As noted by Intelsat’s CEO David McGlade, “The future preservation of the space environment will rely on every nation’s appreciation that its own self-interest lies in preserving this precious common good.”[39] The sanctity of space is in every nation’s interest, when it comes to commerce, infrastructure, and security. Increased rhetoric will likely occur, space powers (namely U.S., Russia, and China) will continue to pound their metaphorical chests, and the probability for attacks against space infrastructure is moderate. However, an all-out kinetic “war” in space is unlikely. The world seems to always find a way to cooperate in space. Even during heightened tensions between the U.S. and USSR, the two superpowers found a way to collaborate over two hundred miles above the Earth.

The application of deterrence and cooperative restraint will likely ensure stability in space for the next few years. The practice has been the modus operandi thus far, and aside from a few, aforementioned ASAT tests, has mostly sustained safe access to space. Simultaneously, space powers, namely the U.S., should work diligently to establish norms for military, civilian, and commercial activities in space. This will take domestic buy-in from all sectors of space, and subsequently investment and participation of our partner nations in space.

Matthew Morris is an Account Manager with ICEYE, with a 17+ year tenure working intelligence and space operations with the U.S. Marine Corps and Department of Defense. Matthew holds a Masters of Arts in International Politics from CERIS-ULB Diplomatic School of Brussels, with an emphasis on Space Policy. This paper represents the author’s views solely and does not necessarily represent the official policy or position of any Department or Agency of the U.S. Government. If you have a different perspective, we’d like to hear from you.

  1. spacepolicyonline. (2020, July 14). Space Law. Retrieved from
  2. UNOOSA. (31 May 2021). Status of International Agreements Relating to Activities in Outer Space as of 1 January 2021, from
  3. spacepolicyonline. (2020, July 14). Space Law. Retrieved from
  4. UNOOSA. (2020, January). Status of International Agreements Relating to Activities in Outer Space. Retrieved November 2020,
  5. UNOOSA. (n.d.). Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Retrieved November 2020, from
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. NASA. (1998). Commercial Space Act of 1998, Title II – P.L. 105-303. Retrieved November 2020, from
  9. H.R. 2262-U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, Pub. L. No. 114-90, 114th Congress (2015-2016),
  10. FAA. (1998). Commercial Space Act 1998. (FAA, Producer) Retrieved November 2020, from
  11. UNOOSA. (n.d.). Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Retrieved November 2020, from
  12. Ibid
  13. Hobe, Stephen et al. Cologne Commentary on Space Law-Outer Space Treaty. (Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag; 1st Edition, May 18, 2017).
  14. Grunert, Jeremy. 22 June 2021. The “Peaceful” Use of Outer Space?. War on the Rocks. Retrieved from
  15. U.S. National Security Council. 17 December 1959. US Policy on Outer Space. Retrieved December 2020, from
  16. U.S. White House. 9 December 2020. U.S. National Space Policy. [Washington, D.C.]: [Office of Science and Technology Policy]. Retrieved from
  17. NATO, 17 June 2021. NATO’s Approach to Space. Retrieved from
  18. A great power is defined as a nation, rather than a state, with global reach and scale. It influences the international relations system as a whole, can exert hard power and aspects of soft power, and go beyond DIME (Diplomatic/Informational/Military/Economic) instruments of power to include cultural and religious influence.
  19. Ibid
  20. Moltz, J.C. The Politics of Space Security. (Stanford University Press, 2019), pp. 348-349.
  21. Friedman, Norman. Seapower and Space: From the Dawn of the Missile Age to Net-Centric Warfare. (Annapolic, MD: Naval Institute Press, 200). P312.
  22. Colucci, L & Carlson, J. (20 July 2021). Great Power Strategic Competition on Earth and in Space. (American Foreign Policy Council). From
  23. Middle Powers are states that are neither great nor small in terms of international power, capacity and influence, and demonstrate a propensity to promote cohesion and stability in the world system.
  24. Brodeur, Scott. Personal interview. (16 Aug 2021)
  25. Smith, Adam. (July 2021). Russia Launches New ‘Walking’ Robot Arm Module to the International Space Station. Independent. Retrieved from
  26. Grunert, Jeremy. Personal interview. 21 July 2021.
  27. Townsend, Brad. Personal interview. 21 July 2021.
  28. Grunert, Jeremy. Personal interview. 21 July 2021.
  29. Potter, Phillip et al. (Aug 2021). Space Norms and U.S. National Security: Leading on Space Debris. War on the Rocks. Retrieved from
  30. Mahshie, Abraham. (Aug 2021). Dickinson Calls for International Norms in Space, Citing ‘Provacative’ Actions by Adversaries. Air Force Magazine. Retrieved from
  31. UN. (2021). Outer Space. United Nations. Retrieved from
  32. Dickey, Robin. (July 2021). Building Normentum: A Framework for Space Norm Development. Aerospace Corp: Center for Space Policy and Strategy. Retrieved August 2021, from
  33. Ibid
  34. Ibid
  35. Sheetz, M. (16 Nov 2021). Russia Calls U.S. Hypocritical for Condemning Anti-Satellite Weapons Test, CNBC News, From
  36. NATO. (19 Nov 2021). Statement by the North Atlantic Council on the Recent Anti-Satellite Missile Test Conducted by the Russian Federation, NATO, from
  37. Council of the EU. 19 Nov 2021). Statement by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on behalf of the EU on the Russian Anti-satellite test on 15 November 2021, EU, from
  38. Hitchens, T. (01 DEC 2021). Biden Administration to Propose New Global Norms for Military Space, Breaking Defense, from
  39. Moltz, J.C. The Politics of Space Security. (Stanford University Press, 2019), pp. 352-353

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