Accelerating Lunar Space Race Will Test International Agreements

The United States, China, India, and others are all headed back to the moon—and this time, they’re likely to stay. Is Earth’s only natural satellite big enough to share?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off with Israel's Lunar Lander and an Indonesian communications satellite at space launch complex 40 in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 21.
AP Photo/Terry Renna
Feb. 26, 2019, 8 p.m.

The world’s major powers are kicking off a renewed age of lunar exploration—and with it, setting the stage for an international confrontation over the moon’s exploitable resources.

That’s the fear, at least. Right now nobody’s quite sure what resources await the first lunar prospectors, much less how rival powers could divvy up the spoils. But experts are already warning that the Outer Space Treaty, the Magna Carta of space law since its inception in 1967, may not survive the process.

“How long are we going to be party to the Outer Space Treaty as a nation?” Pamela Meredith, the head of the space-law practice group at KMA Zuckert, asked during a roundtable on the space industry in Washington last Thursday.

Among other things, the Outer Space Treaty prevents nation-states from claiming sovereignty or appropriating any portion of a celestial body. When it was first signed by over 100 nations at the height of the Cold War, Meredith said the West, the Soviet bloc, and the nonaligned nations all “saw an interest in claiming the moon as a province of mankind, free for use, not subject to appropriation.

“How long is that going to last?” Meredith said. “It’s going to last until the day that someone can lay claim to something there and actually enforce it. When that will be, I don’t know. But I guess it will happen.”

The recent discovery of ice deposits on the moon has nation-states and private actors eager to extract all that hydrogen and oxygen and turn it into fuel for further exploration. But prospectors are also salivating at the increasing possibility that vast deposits of ores and gases rarely found on Earth exist in abundance on the moon.

National governments and the private sector are hastening their efforts accordingly. China achieved a first for humanity earlier this year when it landed a probe on the far side of the moon, and it has scheduled another mission for later this year. An Israeli company launched the first privately funded lunar lander last Thursday. And though delays continue to plague its program, India is also set to launch several new missions to the moon this year.

All that activity hasn’t escaped NASA’s notice. While the Trump administration made lunar exploration a key focus early on, observers see the effort accelerating faster than anticipated.

During a Feb. 14 briefing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency now hopes to send new payloads to the moon on privately owned landers by the end of the year—an unexpected announcement that Kahina Aoudia, the director of legal and regulatory affairs at Space Partnership International, said was “potentially in response" to Beijing’s recent success.

NASA’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services project is moving at a breakneck pace despite having been announced only in November. The program will outsource NASA’s lunar landers to private companies, with NASA expected to pick its commercial partners by March and have them prepped to launch by the end of the year. Both CLPS and the related Lunar Gateway project—a longer-term program aiming to orbit a space station around the moon—received full funding from Congress in the appropriations bill passed Feb. 15.

The U.S. space industry says the momentum is virtually unprecedented in the modern era. “It’s really remarkable to see the bipartisan support we’ve seen on the Hill for this,” said Dan Hendrickson, the vice president of business development at Astrobotic Technology, one of several front-runners for NASA’s lunar-lander program. Hendrickson went on to praise NASA’s November-to-March timescale. “That’s lightning speed; that’s really incredible,” he said.

Ben Roberts, the vice president of governmental affairs at Moon Express, another front-runner in the lunar-lander industry, echoed Hendrickson’s assessment. “I know controversy when it comes to space policy,” said Roberts, a former White House space official during the Obama administration. “I have never seen a program that seems to have quite this level of support right out of the gate.”

Roberts and Hendrickson stopped short of claiming that the government’s newfound urgency is driven by a desire to beat out China or other rivals. But Meredith said all the activity around the moon clearly indicates “a space race among nations.”

“I see China and India with very ambitious programs,” Meredith said. “China is throwing money at this.”

What does that mean for the long-held international agreements underpinning the space economy? The Outer Space Treaty still allows for freedom of use, and Roberts expects some form of land claims and resource exploitation will be tolerated. But that doesn’t solve every problem expected to crop up as new resource deposits are discovered.

“If we find a location on the moon or elsewhere that has such immense economic value that multiple countries want to go there and use it, then what are the rules by which people essentially have interference rights?” Roberts said. “If one of us lands a probe there, does that mean another country can’t land a probe nearby?”

If disputes do arise, they’ll quickly run up against a problem commonly faced by terrestrial treaties. “That’s the weakness of all international law—there’s few means of enforcing,” Meredith said.

Sarah Noble, a planetary geologist at NASA now working on the CLPS program, said fears of an international dispute over lunar resources may be overblown. “I wouldn’t worry about finding the one place on the moon that everybody wants to go to,” she said. “The moon is a big place, and there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

But Noble also noted that the moon’s water deposits are concentrated primarily in the lunar poles. And with speculation building that China is pursuing a lunar presence in order to mine Helium-3, an ultra-rare gas that could be used in a theoretical fusion reactor, Noble said such an effort would likely face pushback.

“You’d have to strip-mine huge amounts of the surface,” she said. “If they start strip-mining the moon, I imagine there are groups on Earth who might have problems with that.”

As global plans for lunar exploration and exploitation continue to accelerate, the ultimate survival of the Outer Space Treaty—and the future of war, peace, and prosperity in our solar system—may have to be hammered out the old-fashioned way.

“There’s all these issues that have not been addressed,” Roberts said. “And I don’t know that we’re going to be able to address them until we actually do them.”

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