Space and the United Nations

Apollo 11


Who's Who: Pioneering Scientists and Cold Warriors

Early Rockets and Spacecraft

American Space Program

The Space Program and American Foreign Policy

Space and the United Nations

Works Cited



In January of 1957, nine months before sputnik, President Eisenhower, anticipating what the next stage of the arms race would be, used his State of the Union address to ask the international community to prepare to regulate missiles and satellites in space. After the launch of Sputnik, the United States planned to be the first nation to propose that outer space “be used only for peaceful purposes,” and set up a United Nations commission to monitor the exploration of space; however, during bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union on the use of space, Eisenhower proposed banning the use of ICBMs in space, and the subsequent destruction of useless missiles. Because of its numerous missile bases in countries surrounding the Soviet Union, the United States did not rely on ICBMs for attack. Indeed, Intermediate-Range missiles would prove to be more than effective. The Soviet Union did not have such bases in the Western Hemisphere, and, if it were ever to attack the United States, it would have to rely on an ICBM, which would travel through space on its way to North America. Banning ICBMs in space would be to the Soviet Union what banning international bases would be to the United States; therefore, that is exactly what the Soviet Union proposed.

On March 15, 1958, the Soviet Union publicly proposed that “an international program for space research would be established under the control of the United Nations…. A new United Nations agency for international cooperation in research on cosmic space would develop this space program.” To add to the dismay of the United States, the Soviet Union tied the “liquidation of foreign military bases on the territories of other countries” to these terms. The United States could never accept this demand, and the Soviet Union clearly recognized this fact. Thus, the United States was forced by the Soviet Union to object to an international policy that it agreed with and suffer being perceived as against international cooperation and disarmament.

In response the United States proposed that the United Nations establish an ad hoc committee to gather information about “the problems and possibilities for international cooperation.” Unfortunately, this committee proved to be worth very little because it was boycotted by Soviet bloc states and sympathetic non-aligned members over the lopsided distribution of seats that greatly favored Western over Soviet powers. The United States purposely limited the content of the committee’s report out of fear that, if it contained any significant proposals, they would never be seen again because the Soviets had not participated. Ultimately, a permanent committee was set up, the membership ratios of which the Soviet Union did not object to; however, this Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was inactive for over two years.

It was the U.S. President Kennedy who reinvigorated COPUOS late in 1961. Within 10 weeks, UN Resolution 1721 was written and passed unanimously. It contained provisions that extended the United Nations Charter into outer space, established the free use of space and exploration of celestial bodies for all nations, and increased the size of the committee from 24 to 28 members. Subsequent increases in size would prove to be the committee’s undoing as it swelled to 53 members and became utterly ineffective.