Who owns the Moon?

15 July 2014

Interview with

Ian Crawford, Birkbeck College

This week we're celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which tookMoon flag humans to the moon for the first time.

We heard all about grand plans to further explore the lunar surface and to mine the moon, but who, if anyone, has the right to do so?

Professor Ian Crawford from Birkbeck College tackled the thorny issue of who actually owns the moon with Chris Smith...

Ian - Nobody owns the moon. The legal status of the moon is currently governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and this treaty prohibits nation states from appropriating the moon by planting flags on it or claiming sovereignty. So, under current international law, nation states are not permitted to own the moon. But there is an ambiguity because when the '67 treaty was formulated, no one envisaged private access or tourism or the Google XPRIZE, or anything like that. So, it is true that these commercial endeavours are not really dealt with explicitly by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and therefore, there is a case for clarifying the legal position before these commercial activities really get underway.

Chris - Have all countries in the world signed up for the treaty or are some not in it?

Ian - No. Effectively all relevant nations are parties to the Outer Space Treaty. The last time I checked, it had 202 states parties signed up to the Outer Space Treaty and these include all space fairing nations including China and India and Japan, and really any nation state that's in any way likely to be able to send anything to the moon is signed up to the Outer Space Treaty. So, the Outer Space Treaty is secure. It is a secure foundation for international law for lunar exploration and exploitation, but it doesn't quite go far enough because of when it was setup, none of these commercial activities were envisaged.

Chris - So, if a company were to go to the moon, perhaps off the back of the Lunar XPRIZE, if they were to get there and then begin exploitation of the moon, would they be covered by legislation or would they be just capable of exploiting it to their own benefit and sell things off the back of that which they benefited from, the country they were from benefited from, but others wouldn't necessarily?

Ian - So, this is where there is an ambiguity in the treaty that does need to be clarified. Currently, the launching state is responsible for the activities of any commercial entity which goes to the moon, or to anywhere in outer space. The nation state who launches this payload is responsible. So, if any of these packages - Google XPRIZE, or what not - were launched from US territory, the United States of America which is a signatory of the treaty would be expected to enforce the terms of the Outer Space Treaty and similarly, for any other launching state. Since nation states are themselves not allowed to appropriate the Moon, the sense is that this would prohibit the governments of nation states that oversaw these launches would have to ensure that they were not seen to be appropriating the Moon and therefore probably, would impose legal impediments to having private entities do so. So, this would be a potential disinsentive to the private exploration of the Moon and I think I agree with Anita and others that we actually do need a commercial leverage here to help us explore the moon. So, I think in order to facilitate this, a revisiting of the Outer Space Treaty would be desirable so that it made clear that although no one could appropriate the moon, at least private companies that went to the moon on their own initiative, if they were able to find anything worth selling would benefit from their investment because unless these private companies have that guarantee, they're unlikely to invest. If they don't invest, we'll all be the poorer for it. So, this is one of the reasons for wanting to clarify the international legal regime that currently covers the moon.

Chris - Well, you've just been writing a review on how the moon might or might not be exploited or exploitable. What points were you making in that review which hasn't been published yet.

Ian - Well, I agree with David Rothery really that the Moon has very little that is so valuable that you would have to go to the moon to get it and bring to the Earth to benefit the Earth's economy directly. Helium 3 is suggested, but as Dave correctly pointed out, helium 3 fusion hasn't yet been made to function on the Earth. So, we don't even know there's a market for it. And even if there is, the Helium 3 on the moon is a finite resource. It's essentially a fossil fuel. You'd go to the moon and strip mine it and use it all up. So, it's not a long term solution to the Earth's energy needs.

The other possibility are, that crashed metallic asteroids on the lunar surface might be mineable for platinum group elements which conceivably could have a market on the Earth. But it's kind of pushing it, so I do think Dave was correct that really, the economic value of the Moon, will be strongest in the context of development of lunar infrastructure itself to help explore the Solar System, to take us to Mars, to permit scientific exploration. So, lunar resources will be very important for that and in developing an economic infrastructure in the inner Solar System more generally. So, in Earth's geostationary orbit for example, if you wanted to build large spacecraft in low Earth orbit or geostationary orbit, the moon will become an economically more attractive place to get the raw materials from. Just because its gravity well, is so much shallower than the Earth's. So, I think that's the long term context in which the economic value of the moon should be seen.

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