There are a number of widely-signed treaties concerning outer space and travel into, colonization of, and exploration of space which many nations might find encumbering to their ambitions.

The Outer Space Treaty establishes a standard of international law in space. However, it contains a number of important provisions that seem very idealistic, and which might have been assented to because at the time it was ratified, they were not expected to become an issue in the near term. Additionally, some other treaties have serious effects on space exploration.

  • The OST forbids weapons of mass destruction in space: Would become a problem if somebody saw a major military advantage in doing this -- and notable because this might get outside the structure of mutually-assured destruction, under which we have survived decades of nuclear tension

  • That rule is also problematic because industrial nuclear explosives, such as terraforming explosives or Orion Drive pulse units, might be counted as weapons of mass destruction even though they are intended for peaceful purposes.

  • The OST forbids territory claims on celestial bodies: Becomes problematic once colonization or just the building of large, permanent installations is possible -- nation states may wish to annex settled areas into their sovereign territory.

  • The OST requires that states are responsible for and must direct and supervise nonstate actors: Becomes somewhat problematic if space travel becomes sufficiently casual.

  • The Limited Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear explosions in the Earth's atmosphere and in space: effectively bans the use of the Orion Drive, which would likely be an incredibly valuable technology since it is the only method of reaching anything approaching that level of performance with technology we can build today.

Both of these treaties have been signed by every country likely to enact space travel projects in the near term, and both of them were signed during the Cold War when international politics were very different.

Is there any distinct sign that people whose decisions matter are chafing at any of the restrictions of these treaties, likely to renege on them, or seeking withdrawal or exemption from them?

1 Answer 1


No such sign or tension is seen. There is almost nothing that motivates a state to consider violating the OST in the foreseeable future.

Developing space-based weapons may be a realistic motivation for violating the OST, but there’s nothing a space-based weapon can do that conventional nuclear weapon systems can’t do better.

The traditional nuclear triad already does a good job enforcing MAD, and there is still a lot of room for improvement, e.g. China is building stealthier SSBNs and Russia is developing the heavier Sarmat ICBM. Compared to developing space-based weapons, improving existing weapon systems confers more consistent strategic gain, in a shorter time frame, at lower cost, generating less political fallout.

On the other hand, orbital anti-ballistic missile systems can potentially upset MAD, but engineers are nowhere near designing such a weapon. Development of laser-like energy weapons is still in its embryonic stages, while missile-based weapons (brilliant pebbles) are financially unattractive due to the extra expense of sending payload - missiles - to load or reload the weapon.

Regarding nuclear explosives, few practical applications have been found for the technology, and experiments by both the US and USSR achieved little. As for nuclear-based propulsion, Project Orion was very primitive using uncontrolled nuclear reactions, i.e. nuclear bomb detonations. Most recent concepts of nuclear pulse propulsion rely on controlled nuclear reactions, i.e. a reactor. They will go unhindered by the OST.

Proliferation of commercial space agencies is considered far-fetched enough that few theorists are considering its impact on the OST. There are two major bottlenecks to commercial space travel: Massive capex on infrastructure and R&D, and tight government control on engineering expertise and tooling. SpaceX has a strong partnership with NASA, and even its success is the exception, not the norm.

There’s an interesting body of work on space colonization with diverse views that I can’t summarize in a sentence or two. Check out A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars (doi: 10.1016/j.spacepol.2016.05.008) and articles citing it.

  • I think it should be noted that Project Orion can (probably) be built with technology available right now, as opposed to anything involving fusion reactors.
    – ikrase
    Aug 4, 2020 at 11:11
  • Anything like traditional Orion would make such an incredible mess of Earth that it would only be considered if it were going to be used while averting some much larger disaster (like some massive Earth-impacting asteroid). Casual use as a launch vehicle simply doesn't make sense. May 22, 2022 at 5:36

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