Well, Julian beat me to the punch by a few minutes, but here’s my take…
U.S. officials appear poised to make history by approving the first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit, according to people familiar with the details.
The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory hurdle to plans by Moon Express, a relatively obscure space startup, to land a roughly 20-pound package of scientific hardware on the Moon sometime next year.
It also would provide the biggest federal boost yet for unmanned commercial space exploration and, potentially, the first in an array of for-profit ventures throughout the solar system.
Moon Express is a company looking towards extracting resources from the moon. They explain on their website:
Most of the elements that are rare on Earth are believed to have originated from space, and are largely on the surface of the Moon. Reaching for the Moon in a new paradigm of commercial economic endeavor is key to unlocking knowledge and resources that will help propel us into our future as a space faring species.
There are a variety of different business models for the growing commercial space industry. Some companies are focused on providing launch services for ferrying cargo and crew to orbit and beyond (SpaceX, United Launch Alliance), others have models based space “tourism” (Virgin Galactic), or providing the modular building blocks of space habitats (Bigelow Aerospace) or extracting resources from asteroids or the moon (Planetary Resources, Moon Express). It is this last business model, resource extraction, that particularly challenges existing regulatory structures, the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement.
The U.S. is not a party of the Moon Agreement. However, it is important to note that the Agreement states, in part:
1. The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this Agreement and in particular in paragraph 5 of this article.
2. The moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
3. Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any State, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person. The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the moon, including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the moon or any areas thereof. The foregoing provisions are without prejudice to the international regime referred to in paragraph 5 of this article…
7. The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include:
(a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon;
(b) The rational management of those resources;
(c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;
(d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration.
Based on this text, some have argued that one cannot mine the Moon or asteroids for private profit. Julian has set out in his posts an interpretation of the OST language that would allow private ventures. Others, such as Richard Bilder, have concluded that the regulatory uncertainties regarding mining the Moon argues in favor of constructing a clear multilateral legal regime.
International law can play an important role in this burgeoning field. Rather than attempting to ban such mining enterprises, international law can provide a framework so that such ventures can have greater certainty and better assess risks, as well as have certain limits on their activities. A multilateral agreement can recognize the property rights of companies extracting resources, define where resources can and cannot be extracted, define a regime of noninterference among mining ventures (there are broader noninterference norms in the existing OST and Moon Agreement), and so on. Such an agreement would appreciate the opportunities of this new frontier of exploration and economic activity but also provide some reasonable bounds to avoid conflict, avoid the wasteful degradation of asteroids or the moon, and ban certain activities that could endanger the public. I am skeptical of any attempts, though, at large-scale wealth redistribution. That did not work in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (and needlessly hampered the acceptance of an important treaty) and I see no reason why there would be a different outcome here.
This is why the U.S.’s taking a step forward to approve a private mission my a moon mining company has significant implications. The Journal continues:
The expected decision, said the people familiar with the details, is expected to set important legal and diplomatic precedents for how Washington will ensure such nongovernmental projects comply with longstanding international space treaties. The principles are likely to apply to future spacecraft whose potential purposes range from mining asteroids to tracking space debris.
Approval of a formal launch license for the second half of 2017 is still months away…
But this is only the first of many steps that U.S. companies may be taking in private space exploration. Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX plans to send an uncrewed lander to Mars around 2018 and a crewed mission around 2026. If that timetable holds, and if states do not jumpstart their Mars programs then the first person on Mars will have been sent by a private company, not a national space program (The key word, of course, being “if.”) I believe the current NASA scenario is to land a crew sometimes in the mid 2030’s.
Although US companies are currently the main actors in these private space ventures, that will not always be the case. These are early days, still. The “commercial space race” is still among toddlers. But those baby steps quickly become small steps. And then giant leaps.
To answer the question of the title of this post: should the U.S. approve this commercial moon mining venture? If it meets U.S. regulatory requirements and in the absence of clear international law to the contrary: Yes.
But it is also in the interest of American companies, and the US as a whole, to clarify multilateral regulations concerning the commercial exploitation of the Moon and other celestial bodies. Now is the time to define some ground rules for everyone in the space race.