Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit (and of the University of Tennessee Law School) has a short op-ed in USA Today celebrating the first official US government statement of support for the private exploitation of resources on the moon. As Reynolds describes it:
Bigelow [a private US company] has decided that it wants to go to the moon, and — here’s the real news — has gotten the Federal Aviation Administration’s space office (Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation) to give it the go-ahead, and to state that the U.S. government will recognize and protect Bigelow’s right to create a base and to operate exclusively in that base’s vicinity.
The linked report from Reuters elaborates that the FAA is simply using its existing authority to regulate payloads on space launches to authorize activities private companies might use those payloads for on the moon. In this case, Bigelow is preparing to build an inflatable space habitat, a “moon base”, and would like some statement of US government backing for its project.
According to Reynolds (and many space lawyers), the Outer Space Treaty does not in fact prohibit private exploitation of natural resources on the moon. I am a bit surprised because Article II of that treaty states that:
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
But while national appropriation is prohibited, it appears to Reynolds and others that private appropriation is not prohibited. This argument takes some interpretive legwork, but it certainly has some historical pedigree, dating back to at least this 1969 essay.
This aggressive reading of Article II is enough to encourage other private space development companies to plan their business models on extracting and then bringing back minerals from the moon. As Moon Express, another company stated:
“The company does not see anything, including the Outer Space Treaty, as being a barrier to our initial operations on the moon,” said Moon Express co-founder and president Bob Richards. That includes “the right to bring stuff off the moon and call it ours.”
I am still not sure about their reading of the treaty’s language. Did the drafters of the Outer Space Treaty really want to prohibit states from exploiting celestial bodies, but allow any non-state to do so (and without any obvious set of rules to govern those non-states)? I definitely need to study this question more, but it certainly seems like there will be a dispute on this question someday soon. Any experts out there who wish to comment, please share!