Debate: Should there be laws for exploring the moon?


There needs to be a legal framework to protect investment on the Moon
Professor Ian Crawford

Profile: Professor Ian Crawford

Ian Crawford is professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck University College London and sits on the European Space Agency (ESA) Human Spaceflight and Exploration Science Advisory Committee (HESAC). He is a contributing author to the book ‘Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon’.


The legal framework can wait: we should first protect the Earth’s environment
Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Profile: Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, OBE, was named by the Sunday Times as one of the ‘greatest explorers of the 20th century’. He has been on over 30 expeditions, including leading 115 scientists to study the rainforests of Sarawak. His book ‘Mulu: the Rainforest’, started the international concern for tropical rainforests.

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The Moon has been in the news a fair amount recently, because China has recently landed its Chang’e 3 probe on the lunar surface. This has certainly raised the profile of lunar exploration. The current legal framework for exploration of the Moon is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has more than 100 state signatories to it. This prevents nation states from appropriating the Moon, and the document has a phrase in it that prevents nations states from negatively affecting the lunar environment, although that in itself is not defined. There is, then, a legal framework in place. But when the 1967 treaty was signed, there wasn’t envisaged to be any ‘non-state’ activity on the Moon - by private companies, for example - which are not explicitly covered by the treaty. There is a case for expanding the treaty to include activities that we can now envisage happening such as privately led industrial exploitation of resources on the Moon and space tourism, which could well happen in the next few decades. So there is an argument to update the legal framework that already exists.

Scientifically there is a huge amount we can do on the Moon: it has an awful lot to tell us about the history of the Solar System and the near-Earth cosmic environment. Although there are people who are interested in possible mineral exploitation of the Moon, I’m pretty skeptical about the potential for there being all that much up there to exploit commercially. But since there are companies who have stated their interest, then that is why it is sensible to bring them into a legal framework.

Likewise it’s not immediately possible to predict how tourism will pan out. All you can say is that there are companies such as Virgin Galactic who intend to make profits from sub-orbital flights, circum-lunar flights and lunar hotels. It’s impossible to tell how big that market is, but going to the Moon for non-scientific reasons is a market, and if that happens it will be desirable to regulate that, if only to ensure that we don’t have space tourists trampling all over places which are scientifically important.

There needs to be a legal regime that can regulate all this potential activity in order to stop people falling over each other and getting in each other’s way. And to do this all you need to do is expand the existing legislation. The multilateral agreement was negotiated by the United Nations, so possibly you could do something similar to bring it up to date. The Antarctic Treaty and the Law of the Sea are models for our potential to govern space and its resources.

There are lots of resources in the Solar System that could be of value to the future of the human race and it would be foolish to not make use of them.

Of course, the reason for having a legal framework for this is not to stop such activities happening in the first place, but to have a rational basis whereby we could prevent space from becoming an arena for conflict between nation states. It will also provide a basis for private enterprise to be sure of its ground. If a mining company is hoping to extract minerals, or a hotel company wishes to provide holiday services on the Moon, although the current legal framework would stop them owning the Moon, it does not necessarily guarantee ownership of your facilities that they may have set up on the Moon through their own efforts. Unless there is some legal assurance that companies will be in a position where they own what they extract from the Moon, or some other extra-terrestrial body, then they are unlikely to invest in doing so. A legal framework would actually be of benefit to private companies.

There are serious reasons for wanting to explore the Moon, and I hope that there is a renewed interest in space exploration in general. We’re still in a precursor exploratory phase. But if it turns out that there is economically viable material to be exploited, we don’t currently have a framework in place.

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Should there be a legal regulatory framework to control the commercialisation of the Moon? Well, my two starting points are simply these: it’s neither important nor interesting when compared with a multitude of pressing environmental concerns that have an immediate effect on us today.The fact is that pretty much since the Apollo explorations of the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s we have culturally lost interest in space exploration. Mankind needs to have obsessions such as religion and philosophy - it’s part of our nature - and for a while the human species became obsessed with the Moon. Over the millennia one of the greatest concerns, rightly or wrongly, to occupy the human psyche has been the construction of empires, beating neighbours and having power over people and territory. The race into space was another example of that. These obsessions seem to pulse periodically and at the moment we seem to be interested in space again, although I can’t see why.

I’ve always found anything beyond the eco-system in which we live profoundly boring for two reasons. First, the most interesting thing about Earth is that things live here. And we can be pretty sure that in this respect the Moon has nothing to offer. Second, we live in a rich carbon-based eco-system that’s wrapped in a blanket of friendly gases that provides us with limitless possibilities to explore. And we’ve only just started to scratch the surface.

The Moon’s just a rock. There are no minerals of any worth up there, and there’s nothing to do if you go there on holiday. I can hardly see the point to this re-engagement with lunar exploration, if it is nothing other than a new form of imperialism. The notion that there are those calling for a legal framework on how we approach protecting the rights of commercial organisations to exploit the territory seems to me to border on the surreal. Even if there ever was a genuine point to space exploration, all we’ve ever really done is dump a load of junk up there in the name of science. To legally safeguard the industrial exploitation of that environment is to create a licence to turn it in to a rubbish tip.

If we assume for a moment that life on Earth is the only collection of living organisms floating through space, then it seems that there are two ways in which we can go. And while this is an extraordinarily simple piece of thinking, I find it amazing how confused people get about it. We either sort this planet out and make it habitable, create a sustainable world, get on top of the population explosion, stop destroying species an polluting the place, or we give up. It seems to me that to consider developing and exploiting off-world sites is to admit we’ve screwed up our planet and is furthermore the Counsel of Despair.

If we have taken the view that the end of the world is nigh and the only response to that is to clear out and look elsewhere, the first problem we encounter is that we need unimaginably vast resources to finance the technology required to go looking for other options elsewhere in the Solar System. That approach seems to be such a waste of our limited resources that I simply can’t understand how we are allowing the balance of our thinking to become so alarmingly uneven.

An example of this is the Nasa budget. In 2013 this was $17.8bn, which works out at about one half of one per cent of the US Federal Budget. This is the sort of sum that can bring entire countries down. At the same time, the budget for geo-engineering research into climatology on earth was something like $20m. If we could just have some of that space budget reapplied to try to work out what’s going wrong with this planet, we could really get something done. To start writing up legal frameworks to protect those involved in mucking about in space seems to me to be applying a veneer of respectability to something that doesn’t make sense.


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