The Battle for the Moon Begins

An increasing number of nations and companies are headed there. One group says the UN needs to start making more rules before it’s too late.

Neil Armstrong works on his space craft on the moon.

Photographer: NASA/Hulton Archive

On the 48th anniversary of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, an Illinois attorney hopes to pocket as much as $4 million at a Sotheby’s auction of a bag that Apollo 11 astronauts filled with rocks.

The bag’s history is as interesting as its travels: the U.S. government accidentally sold it in 2015, then fought the buyer, Nancy Lee Carlson, a suburban Chicago lawyer, to reclaim it. The feds lost that case last year and ceded the bag to Carlson, who is selling it Thursday.

The legal kerfuffle concerns the disposition of an important cultural item that NASA and others don’t believe should be in private hands. Spurred by the auction, a curiously named nonprofit called For All Moonkind is pushing the United Nations to protect the six Apollo landing sites and lunar items such as the bag.

“What we need to do is to create, basically, a Unesco for space,” said Michelle Hanlon, a Connecticut attorney who is leading the effort, referring to the UN world heritage designation. 

But as important as securing symbols of that first foray to a celestial body may be, the fight is a small illustration of the potential exploitation to come. As more nations and companies plan missions to the moon, the real fear isn’t of some spacefaring Indiana Jones so much as the impacts of numerous lunar landings or, say, a massive mining operation.

China launched its first moon rover mission on Dec. 2, 2013. 
Photographer: STR/AFP

The basic legal underpinning for space activity is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is administered by the UN’s Vienna-based Office for Outer Space Affairs. The agreement’s central tenet keeps space free of all national sovereignty or ownership claims—plus nuclear weapons—and restricts the use of the moon and other space bodies to peaceful purposes. (The U.S. signed it.)

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Moon Agreement, which says that the moon’s natural resources are a “common heritage of mankind” and that a new international body should govern the use of those resources “as such exploitation is about to become feasible.” (The U.S. and most of the countries that have space programs didn’t sign that.)

Some nations, including the U.S. and Luxembourg, have passed laws to recognize the legal ownership of resources private companies collect in space. And while legal scholars may disagree about whether such laws conflict with the Outer Space Treaty’s mandates against national appropriation, Hanlon said, the point is clear: Plenty of countries and entrepreneurs have grandiose plans for space, with the moon being just one of many commercial and scientific prospects.

Roughly 239,000 miles away, the moon is a large and relatively close target, rich with helium and other resources. At least five nations are actively planning to explore it with manned missions, and China is eager to assess the potential in mining helium-3, a nonradioactive isotope for nuclear fuel that is rare on earth but abundant in the lunar crust.

“It would be great to have those debates” about space commercialization, Hanlon said. “Right now, there’s nothing.”

The conversation was begun though with reference to remnants of earlier exploration. Six years ago, timed with the Apollo 11 anniversary, NASA published a thorough document, How to Protect and Preserve the Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts, offering safeguards for future moon ventures. The agency said it recognizes the steadily increasing technical capabilities of space-faring commercial entities and nations throughout the world and further recognizes that many are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the surface of the moon.” NASA suggested, for example, a 75-meter (246 feet) artifact boundary around the Apollo 11 descent spot. These recommendations, of course, aren’t legally binding.

In 2013, China became only the third nation to achieve a “soft” lunar landing. The nation’s space program then explored the moon with a rover for more than two years. China also plans to launch another moon probe, Chang’e 5, later this year or in 2018, and return samples to earth. The country plans to land a human on the moon by the mid-2030s.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission is designed to accomplish a soft lunar landing in 2018, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX says it has a contract to fly two private citizens around the moon in 2018. Also next year, Google’s Lunar X Prize competition will offer $30 million to teams that can successfully launch, land, and drive a rover on the surface. Lunar X Prize officials have said it’s likely that at least one of the entrants will be able to collect the prize.

Japan and Russia have also contemplated manned missions to the moon, and even America says it may plan a return, though NASA’s budget isn’t likely to support human exploration of Mars anytime soon.

A laser reflector was left on the moon for scientists to use as a measuring device.
Photographer: NASA/Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Back in 1969, the Apollo 11 crew planted a U.S. flag and a plaque on the lunar surface that reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.” But it’s not just plaques that NASA left—theres plenty of equipment and other detritus littering the moon, including food packets, blankets, and cameras. (Even a few golf balls, as Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard famously took some swings in 1971.) The Apollo 15 mission also left a small aluminum memorial to honor U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts killed in the pursuit of space exploration.

For All Moonkind organizers want to prevent the commercialization of off-earth cultural heritage, much the way laws back home prevent the trafficking of important artifacts.

“Imagine what Armstrong’s urine bag would go for,” said Hanlon, who is completing advanced legal study at McGill University’s Institute of Air & Space Law to transition to a practice in space law. “These are the kinds of questions that no one is thinking about. We don’t want robots coming back with artifacts and selling them.”

Of course, if some future lunar explorer or corporate behemoth were to mar Tranquility Base or the now-bleached flags Apollo astronauts planted, any enforcement might be as tricky as a safe moon landing.

The UN’s International Court of Justice might be one venue to resolve disputes, but it’s unclear where litigation over cultural or commercial properties on the moon might actually go for adjudication. Says Hanlon: “A lot of international law is name-and-shame and wag your finger, there’s no doubt about that.”

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