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How High the Moon?

Brass Tacks

By Charles S. Maier

Judging from recent Russian hardware in the sky, someone will soon plant his country's flag on the surface of the moon and nations will build Sputniks big enough to carry their own arsenals.

Various government and United Nations officials as well as lawyers are now trying to avoid the legal chaos which could easily result. The President of the International Astronautical Federation, Andrew G. Haley, will deliver a lecture on space law at the Law School November 25. Haley and others have even made suggestions as to how mankind must treat any alien races it meets in its future explorations of space. But the problems that have now grown to immediate concern are the old thorny ones of sovereignty that have constantly plagued international relations on this sphere.

In the various agreements formulated for the International Geophysical Year, each nation supporting the satellite project agreed in effect to the legal validity of the project and did not quibble about violations of its air space. If, however, reconnaissance or military satellites are built, what would be the legal rights a country has to prevent their passing over its territory?

In defining their sovereignty, nations originally adopted the principle of iusque ad coelum, or roughly "the sky's the limit." But what is the sky? The notion that a nation's control extends unlimited in a huge space cone above its territory is not only gigantic pride, it is also impractical.

Present authorities suggest overhauling the 1944 Chicago Convention on air rights and adopting parallels to the laws of the sea, with their strips of national sovereignty and the concept of an international high seas.

John C. Cooper, Professor at the Institute of International Air Law at McGill University, suggests a strip of national air space within which all conventional aircraft fly. This follows the present system where nations can fly over each other's land only after negotiating agreements. Above this territorial space would be a zone up to three hundred miles high of "contiguous" air space. Haley points out that nations would have partial sovereignty over this area, since most future flights through this zone would be ground to ground rocket flights. Since transportation would have to use the landing facilities of a certain country, that nation could impose its own regulations. Beyond the three hundred mile zone would be the "high seas" of free space where no national control existed. For this Sputnik and trans-Sputnik area space law would have to be formulated.

The need for international control of spacecraft has been mentioned by many officials, and it is discussed in the last report of the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, an affiliate of the American Association for the United Nations. Its report suggests establishing full international control of satellites now, before they become the latest "ultimate" weapon.

This is a very true observation and international control is a very pretty hope. At present, though, it seems doubtful that the rival countries will agree to international supervision of their satellites any more than of their arms.

Claim conflicts over the moon and various other floating islands may be slightly further off, but there will be ample chance for dispute here as there has been with claims in the past. Occupation of a territory has usually been the prerequisite to sovereignty over it, and the claim situation on Luna will probably follow that of Antarctica, where there is no colonization but many contested claims.

Perhaps the satellite powers will be able to set up international control while their sputniks are still toys, and perhaps space law will follow some minimum preplanned structure instead of becoming merely a set of patchy decisions. While the field is still new, there is still the chance to keep some sanity in space, but since the launching of Sputnik, time's winged chariot has been circling the globe very rapidly.

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