To Boldly (But in Compliance With Applicable Regulations) Go

by Andrew Stuttaford

The prospect of the commercial exploitation of the resources that might be found beyond this planet of ours is beginning to worry some people.

In the course of reporting of an auction of some moon rocks, Bloomberg News is reporting that a “nonprofit called For All Moonkind is pushing the United Nations to protect the six Apollo landing sites….”

“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.

The last time I looked at the United Nations logo, it only covered this world. That said, I can see the argument for providing for some sort of terrestrial jurisdiction over this world’s satellite and, for that matter, this world’s immediate vicinity. And, yes, preserving the relics of the early space age is a praiseworthy objective.

 But 1967’s ambitiously-named Outer Space Treaty goes further than that.

Bloomberg:

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.)

And then:

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.”

There’s no need for a debate.  In this context, ‘finders, keepers’ looks like a sensible enough principle, not least because it ought to encourage adventurers, scientists, inventors and investors to get on with the job.  

And while we’re on this sort of topic, the Prime Directive has got to go.

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