Wikimedia Commons The Soviet's Luna 2 probe.

Open Skies and Open Space

HARDLY was Sputnik I in orbit last October when the Russians were ready to meet objections that their first artificial satellite infringed on the sovereignty of other nations. No violation occurred, wrote a Soviet legal expert, because in reality sputnik did not pass over other countries; rather, countries passed under sputnik as the earth rotated. "This piece of applied relativity," as The Economist called it, was supplemented with a more serious proposal. The Soviet authority went on to suggest that the outer atmosphere, like the open seas, belongs to no one and that freedom of circulation above 15 or 18 miles should be permitted by international law.[i]

Within these two brief propositions are compressed some of the most perplexing problems of the approaching space age. The first must have been offered facetiously since sputnik was moving at some 18,000 miles an hour and would have passed over many countries even if the earth did not rotate. Nevertheless, it drew attention to the fact that space is a realm apart, subject to natural laws of its own but, so far, beyond the reach of man-made laws. The second proposition was directed to a central series of questions now in sharp debate: Should sovereignty extend to outer space? Where does space begin? Can the frontier of space be clearly demarcated? The striking thing about this Soviet article is that it drew the limit of sovereignty about three times nearer the earth than any Western student of the problem has proposed, at a distance well within the atmosphere and within the range of rocket airplanes.

More recently the Soviet press has been silent on questions of space law[ii]; in other countries, however, the legal profession has been prolific on the subject. The American Bar Association has set up a Committee on Space Law and the International Astronautical Federation has appointed a committee of four physicists and three lawyers to draft a definition of air space and to recommend a rule delimiting air-space jurisdiction. The latter committee, under [iii]

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