From before the beginning of the space age, U.S. leaders sought to ensure the rights of free passage of spacecraft anywhere in the world. In a critical document, "Meeting the Threat of Surprise Attack," issued on 14 February 1955, a group of academics, industrialists, and the military, working at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, raised the question of the international law of territorial waters and airspace, in which individual nations controlled those territories as if they were their own soil. That international custom allowed nations to board and confiscate vessels within territorial waters near their coastlines and to force down aircraft flying in their territorial airspace. But outer space was a territory not yet defined, and the United States called for it to be recognized as free territory not subject to the normal confines of territorial limits.
"Freedom of space" was extremely significant to those concerned with orbiting satellites, because the imposition of territorial prerogatives outside the atmosphere could legally restrict any nation from orbiting satellites without the permission of those nations that might be overflown. U.S. leaders thought that the Soviet Union might clamor for a closed-access position if the United States was the first to orbit a satellite. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, committed as he was to development of an orbital reconnaissance capability to spy on the Soviet Union as a national defense initiative, worked to ensure that no international bans on satellite overflights occurred.
Eisenhower tried to obtain a "freedom of space" decision on 21 July 1955 when he attended a summit conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The absence of trust among states and the presence of "terrible weapons," he argued, provoked throughout the world "fears and dangers of surprise attack." He proposed a joint agreement "for aerial photography of the other country," adding that the United States and the Soviet Union had the capacity to lead the world with mutually supervised reconnaissance overflights. The Soviets promptly rejected the proposal, saying that it was an obvious American attempt to "accumulate target information."
Eisenhower bided his time and approved the development of reconnaissance satellites under the strictest security considerations. Virtually no one, even those in high national defense positions, knew of this effort. The WS-117L program was the prototype reconnaissance satellite effort of the United States. Built by Lockheed's Missile Systems Division in Sunnyvale, California, the project featured the development of a two-stage booster known as the Agena and a highly maneuverable satellite that took photographs with a wide array of natural, infrared, and other invisible light cameras. This early military space effort, while a closely guarded secret for years, proved critical to the later development of the overall U.S. space program.
The Soviets proved singularly inhospitable to Eisenhower's entreaties for "freedom of space," but that changed in a rather ironic way on 4 October 1957 when Sputnik 1 was launched and ushered in the space age. Since the Soviet Union was the first nation to orbit a satellite, flying as it did over a multitude of nations, including the United States, it established the precedent of "freedom of space." It overflew international boundaries numerous times without provoking a single diplomatic protest. On 8 October 1957, knowing the president's concern over the legality of reconnaissance satellites flying over the Soviet Union, Deputy Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles told the president: "The Russians have … done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space." Eisenhower immediately grasped this as a means of pressing ahead with the launching of a reconnaissance satellite. The precedent held for Explorer 1 and Vanguard 1, and the end of 1958 saw established the tenuous principle of "freedom of space."