106. Action Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs (Buffum), the Legal Adviser (Leigh), and the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, (Ray) to the Deputy Secretary of State (Ingersoll)1 2

Outer Space - Challenge in the UN to U.S. Remote Sensing Program


Brazil and Argentina are taking the lead in mobilizing support in the United Nations for prohibiting certain kinds of civilian space activities, and the publication of data obtained, without the consent of the countries observed. Such restrictions would far exceed those to which we agreed in negotiation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and in our view would represent unacceptable steps backward from the principle of freedom of exploration and use of outer space. The United States supports an unrestricted right to observe anywhere on Earth from outer space, and the open dissemination of data from our civilian remote sensing programs.

The particular activities being challenged are those such as NASA’s Landsat program for remote sensing of the Earth’s environment and natural resources. Although the proposed restrictions might purport to affect military as well as civilian satellites, in that the former also obtain data about natural resources, this possibility does not pose a serious problem because virtually all of the space powers [Page 2] would disregard such assertions. Nevertheless, with regard to civilian satellite programs, we could be confronted with a choice between agreeing to these restrictions or rejecting the desires and views of a large majority of the states in the UN.

We believe that timely bilateral consultations with a number of developing countries, however, might prevent coalescence of a substantial majority in favor of a restrictive approach, and, if undertaken promptly, might allow us to avoid the political cost of opposing such a majority view of the international community.


The United States through NASA has orbited two experimental satellites called Landsat I and II (formerly called ERTS, for Earth Resources Technology Satellite) during the past two years which were uniquely designed to gather data for studies in geology, land use planning, river systems, identification of natural resources and a wide variety of other potential uses. A broad spectrum of international cooperation has characterized these experiments, and over 90 percent of the Earth’s land surface has been sensed at least once under relatively cloud free conditions. All data from Landsat have been made available to any interested party for a minimal fee.

However, as the impressive potential capability of this and comparable systems for identifying natural resources has become better understood, a significant number of governments have begun to fear that publication of such detailed data about their countries may jeopardize their ability to control exploration for and development of their own resources. A principal and reasonable concern is that developed countries and large corporations will be better able to afford the expensive data interpretation services required before useful information is derived, and hence may come to know more about aspects of a country than does the local government. Indeed, American and foreign companies as well as other governments have purchased a great deal of the data from this experimental system.

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In response to this type of widespread concern, Brazil and Argentina have introduced into the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space a draft treaty which, inter alia, would prohibit sensing of another country’s natural resources from space without its express consent, and would then prohibit the dissemination of any data derived also without such express prior consent. If a vote were taken today, it is reasonable to assume that about two thirds of the members of the UN would support such a proposal for a variety of reasons.

Because a prohibition on sensing other countries from outer space is anathema to the Soviets as well as to the United States for military reasons, the Soviets responded to the Brazilian initiative by proposing a set of draft principles which would prohibit dissemination of data about the Earth’s resources of another country, but would leave unimpaired the freedom of exploration and use of outer space which is reflected in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

In February of this year the United States tabled a set of draft principles which support maximum feasible international cooperation in such programs and the open exchange among interested states, scientific communities, individuals, and others of all such data obtained (Tab C). We have unequivocally stated our refusal to accept a prohibition on our right to sense anywhere on the Earth from outer space, and have strongly discouraged international adoption of a restrictive data dissemination policy, stating that we intend to keep our NASA program results open to American citizens in any case. In addition we have pointed out that the restrictions proposed by the Brazilians are both technically and economically unfeasible, and hence are likely to result in only the space powers receiving a regular and full supply of data. Our position was generally supported by the Western Europeans.

The negotiations are now at a critical threshold. The Brazilians and Argentines have gained the cosponsorship of all the other Latin American countries [Page 4] represented on the Outer Space Committee (Mexico, Venezuela and Chile), and are beginning to seek cosponsors from other areas as well. The Soviets are actively if secretly negotiating with the Brazilians, offering Soviet and East European support for the Brazilian text in return for deletion of the prohibition on sensing of other countries without their consent, a compromise which we suspect both sides will be willing to make within the near future.

The phenomenon of unity among the developing countries has not yet materialized on this issue, in part because the question is relatively new, and in part because a number of the developing countries at least recognize our arguments that they have as strong an interest in encouraging sensing and open dissemination of data as in restricting it. However, the Brazilians and others are preparing a very active campaign to gain cosponsors from all geographical areas, and are posing the issue as one more confrontation between the industrialized and the developing world. They will probably concentrate their efforts at the meeting of the Outer Space Scientific and Technical Subcommittee in late April and at the full Committee session in June.

Our experience in the UN during the past several years indicates the difficulty of breaking up such a movement once it is well under way, regardless of the particular merits of one’s case. However, because of the complexities of the issues and the frequent changes in personnel, many governments have not yet made policy decisions regarding these questions. Because our case for unrestricted sensing and open data dissemination to everyone is strong, and because the advantages of our policy to developing countries are demonstrable, we believe that a series of detailed presentations of our position to central, policy level officials in key developing countries, rather than simply to technical experts, could effectively prevent the Group of 77 snowball from forming and could lead to eventual adoption by the Outer Space Committee of a position along the lines which we proposed in February.

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To maximize our chances for success, we believe that a small delegation of three to five appropriate experts from the Department and NASA should arrange to visit as many as possible of the African and Asian countries listed at Tab B, before the UN Outer Space Committee convenes in June, in order to present our position in detail at the highest appropriate levels. Before such visits are undertaken we should also approach the Latin American members of the Outer Space Committee in an attempt to modify their positions and to inform them that we are undertaking other bilaterals. In this context it is of particular interest that Chile has just requested the initiation of negotiations with us for the right to construct their own Landsat ground station. It is important that these contacts be made before any possible Soviet-Brazilian compromise is announced, which is very likely to be early in June.

We have in mind a delegation of one or two people from State and two or three people from NASA. If no funds are available for State participation, we believe it would remain worthwhile to recommend that a NASA delegation make these contacts, even though this is essentially a foreign relations problem. In that event, we would send an aide memoire prepared in the Department with the NASA delegation. However, we are of the view that a more effective and appropriate procedure would be to send a delegation under State Department leadership and with an expertise in the UN negotiations. NASA is willing to absorb the cost of any of their experts who would participate.

We do not believe contacts through our embassies alone would be adequate at this point because of the highly technical nature of the subject matter and the lack of familiarity of officers in the field with this new type of program. Particularly in light of the recent decisions by Zaire and Iran to build ground stations to receive data from Landsat II, and of the growing interest in this space program resulting from its contributions to studying the Sahel disaster, we believe such a delegation could also provide a valuable long-range service by thoroughly briefing appropriate embassy personnel on the technical as well as the political elements of this problem so that they can handle it effectively in the future.

Informal consultations with NASA at the Assistant Administrator level already indicate the agreement of concerned offices in that Agency with this approach, [Page 6] and a willingness to participate in the proposed efforts. Consultations with the NSC staff have also elicited a favorable response to this approach. A cable has been prepared to request the views of the posts in question if you approve the basic approach. All of the relevant country desks have cleared, contingent on replies from the embassies.


That you approve the proposal for a small delegation to visit as many of the designated key countries as feasible before the June session of the Outer Space Committee.

Approve [Ingersoll approved]
Disapprove _____________

That you sign the attached letter to Dr. Fletcher, Administrator of NASA, formally requesting his Agency’s assistance in this effort (Tab A).

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 59, L/OA Files: Lot 99 D 369, Space—Remote Sensing—1975. Confidential. Drafted by Stowe; and concurred in by IO, OES/SCI/SA, S/P, AF/W, AF/E, NEA/EGY, NEA/IRN, NEA/PAB, EA/IMS, AF/C, NEA/INS. Sisco approved the recommendation on April 16. On the memorandum is written, “JJS [Sisco] believes this need not go to D. He has signed letter to Fletcher.” Attached but not published at Tab A is an undated memorandum from Sisco to Fletcher, urging NASA to cooperate in the proposed mission. Attached but not published at Tab B is a list citing Zaire, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia as the key African and Asian countries requiring bilateral consultations and noting that Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela comprised the Latin American members of the Outer Space Committee. Attached but not published at Tab C is UN document A/AC.105/C.2/L. 103 of February 19. Attached but not published at Tab D is an April 11 memorandum from Hewson A. Ryan of ARA to Leigh. It recommended high-level negotiations with Brazilian and Argentinean officials before sending a delegation to African and Asian countries.
  2. The memorandum recommended sending a delegation to selected African and Asian countries to advocate the U.S. position on remote sensing.