During the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, it’s interesting to ponder what the law is regarding ownership or resource control of the moon and any other extraterrestrial body.
NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the stars and stripes in the Sea of Tranquility. In the next three years, five other Apollos landed at five other sites with similar flag plantings at each. In the pre-20th-century eras, proclaiming ownership right in land by virtue of flag planting was a tradition among European sea powers that invaded non-European lands.
Does that mean the United States now has rights in the moon?
No sir. No ma’am. No way.
In 1967, the U.S., the Soviet Union and other space-faring countries entered into the Outer Space Treaty. Under the treaty, it was agreed that the moon would be a “global commons” accessible to all countries. And not just the moon, but asteroids and other celestial bodies are part of this “commons.” Under the treaty, all such bodies are off-limits to territorial proprietary claims by any sovereign nation.
The treaty was a recognition among the superpowers to avoid friction over control of the moon. Friction among European powers over control of non-European lands in the 16th through 20th centuries fueled endless and sometimes massive world wars.
The Outer Space Treaty was and remains fallow in the details, however. The treaty does not specifically deal with the rights of commercial exploitation, or the deriving of, control of or marketing of, such bodies’ natural resources.
In the view of the U.S. and many European nations, the treaty supports the idea that such celestial bodies are available to properly licensed entities that can extract the resources. Thus, the moon would be treated just as the Earth’s oceans have been wherein it can be fished in international waters so long the fishing is done under recognized licensure. What is lawfully caught belongs to the catcher. So too, then, would anything mined on the moon.
Russia, Brazil and other nations, however, view the treaty as having the moon completely open to all earthlings under an international enterprise. The resources extracted are to be shared by all humanity.
The intrusion upon the moon is heating up. China, India and Japan have detailed plans for manned and unmanned landings. China has just accomplished its first controlled soft landing of a probe. Ample amounts of frozen water have been confirmed on the poles, thereby offering ample support for human occupation.
Helium 3, of which the moon is thought to also have ample amounts, has been expounded by many as an excellent energy source that could replace fossil fuels.
To date, over 100 nations have signed on to the treaty. International consensus will need to be reached regarding the method and means for sharing the moon and its resources. The treaty, while not prohibiting placing weapons of war in space, does prohibit placement of weapons of mass destruction. And under the treaty, the moon is off-limits for any military base or weapons testing.
Left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew is a plaque proclaiming that that they came in peace for all mankind.
Time will tell whether that spirit will continue for Lady Luna during the course of humanity’s neverending quest to destroy itself.