The debate over space resources has existed since countries on Earth developed the ability to go to space. The United Nations put forward the Outer Space Treaty (OST) in 1967, which set guidelines for space exploration and resources; the treaty established 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.” However, the OST left the status of lunar and celestial resources—including mineral deposits of titanium, water ice at the Moon’s south pole, and the helium-3 within the lunar regolith—ambiguous. At the time of its ratification, one of the biggest concerns was the placement and testing of nuclear weapons in space, which the treaty bans. The United States and all other major space powers are signatories to the OST and the first three related treaties that followed, all of which establish common-sense statutes for rescuing astronauts, liability for damage caused by space objects, and regulations on registering objects launched into space.
However, the latest UN space law treaty—The Moon Agreement—is neither popular nor unanimously accepted: it has long faced opposition from Russia, China, and, especially, the United States. It opened for signature in 1979 and has only been signed by 18 countries; consequently, since none of the three major space powers have signed, acceded, or ratified the treaty, from the standpoint of international law, it is considered a failure. In particular, the U.S. opposes this treaty because of its ruling on the resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies. Specifically, it establishes that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” in section 1 of article 11. Up until recently, the objection of the U.S. was overt—as they never signed the treaty—but this bipartisan opposition was formalized by the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed into law in 2015 by President Obama, and an executive order signed on Monday, April 6, 2020 by President Trump. President Trump’s recent executive order goes further than the 2015 law endeavoring to make it legal for both American companies and private citizens to own and sell celestial resources; essentially, Trump sought to end any debate over the rights of private interests to claim resources in outer space. Indeed, one stanza of the order reads, “Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons.” However, the legal status of any such claims is unresolved, as there is nothing in international law that would support this policy.
The Executive Order also explicitly states that the U.S. does not consider the Moon Agreement to be an expression of international law, stating that it is neither effective nor necessary. Instead, the Administration says it will seek to join bilateral and multilateral agreements with other countries “regarding safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources.” Later, in a May 2020 article from Reuters, a senior administration official commented anonymously that a new UN treaty would be too long of a process, and that it would be unproductive to work with non-spacefaring nations. However, this seems suspiciously like cutting corners and short-sighted thinking; there is always the possibility that other countries—or private entities—will develop the capabilities to go to space and extract its resources. Additionally, the issue of space resources is not a dramatically urgent matter, so there is time to negotiate. While NASA and private aerospace companies in the U.S. are highly capable and hope to take advantage of the resources on the Moon in the coming years, this is not a capability that is ready to be launched tomorrow. Indeed, as we get closer to its realization, it’s in the U.S.’s best interest to initiate a treaty process so that there is an established protocol when they and others have that capability.
Still, it is one thing to make these provisions when there is no clear route to actually being able to take advantage of the Moon’s resources, and quite another to agree upon regulations that pertain to one’s emerging capabilities. The idea that the Moon and outer space is shared by all humankind is a noble one, but some of the provisions of the original Outer Space Treaty scream too good to be true. An excerpt from Article IX reads, “If a State Party to the Treaty has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by it or its nationals in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities of other States Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, it shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment.” Though complete transparency and multilateral consultation is a desirable aim, the practicality is simply non-existent; it only works because the capability for that kind of interference is not there. There has never been a challenge to this regulation because we have never had, for example, more than one state on the Moon at a time. Similarly, the provisions of the Moon Agreement are much easier for countries like Chile, Austria, and Australia to sign on to, when they have little to no space capabilities of their own. India is the only country with independent spaceflight capabilities that has signed the treaty, but has not ratified it as of yet.
Despite their disregard for the Moon Agreement, other space powers also objected to Trump’s executive order. Sergey Saveliev, the Deputy Director-General on International Cooperation for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, condemned the executive order as colonialism, writing in a statement, “Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation. There have already been examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its interest—everyone remembers what came of it.” While Russia may be condemning this move by the Trump Administration because they feel unprepared to benefit, the point is legitimate. Even if there are no human or human-like inhabitants of these celestial bodies, the desire to explicitly exploit these resources is extremely concerning. We already face a climate crisis here on Earth that is spurred in part by the irresponsible consumption of natural resources—from water use to burning fossil fuels and deforestation. To expand commercial exploitation to the Moon without serious reflection and addressing the issues we face now is not only foolish but catastrophically irresponsible.
The corporations and individuals who have been supporting these kinds of proposals are largely those who would disproportionately benefit from them. Space mining companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have long advocated for such reforms, and billionaires like Jeff Bezos—CEO and founder of Amazon and founder of the private spaceflight company Blue Origin—are strong advocates of lunar mining. A wholehearted extension of Western capitalism to outer space will most certainly benefit these individuals who are already the most privileged members of society. In an article published in Nature in 2019, two researchers explained the ways in which outer space is becoming a commercialized, capitalist territory. Despite the fact that entrepreneurs like Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk preach the benefits of space for all of humankind, their missions truly only benefit “a specific set of wealthy entrepreneurs, many of them originating in Silicon Valley.”
Even now, before any country or individual has legal claim to the Moon, there is money being made off of the desire to own the land. Dennis Hope has made about $12 million by selling the Moon, as well as other planets in our solar system, which he lays claim to without any legal backing. He started in 1980, writing to the UN to inform them of his claim; he sees it as undisputed because the UN never responded. Hope believes he is justified by a loophole in the original Outer Space Treaty, but lawyers say he has no legal backing. Despite this, a reported seven million people have given their money to this scam, including the aides of two former presidents; Carter and Reagan both “own” lunar land, and an unnamed customer bought land for George W. Bush. Hope’s website claims itself as “the only recognized world authority for the sale of lunar and other planetary real estate in the known solar system”; currently, acres of the Moon that are ten miles from the Apollo 11 landing site are selling for $49.99 per acre, with an extra $2.50 to add a name to the deed. Hope is also selling the entire planet of Pluto for $250,000, for which he has had no takers as of yet. It’s a relatively harmless scam that demonstrates the ambiguity and extent to which the current space laws are overdue for reform.
When it comes to talking seriously about property rights in space, the need for thoughtful, comprehensive reform is one that will become more and more urgent as capabilities increase. Even now, space powers are working to mine asteroids, which contain water and other materials that could benefit life on Earth, as well as the search to go beyond. In the summer of 2018, a Japanese spacecraft reached an asteroid and blasted small holes in the surface in an attempt to collect samples, and NASA has also been studying how to do this. In the long term, the structures for which the U.S. government is advocating will likely foment competition and rivalry once powers have established claims of sovereignty over areas of the Moon and other celestial bodies; this is in stark contrast to the cooperative environment that they initially hoped to foster when establishing NASA as a civilian agency. Indeed, the plaque left on the Moon, attached to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.” However, the U.S. may be failing to pursue avenues that will allow these words of peace and unity to ring true in future missions.
The possibility of the exploitation of these resources is not, at its core, truly a problem with the space regulations but a continuation of the unequal systems we sustain on Earth. We have seen privilege and inequality invade this realm when it comes to space tourism, but, hopefully, there is still time to reimagine what the use of space resources could look like. This requires moving past the idealistic treaties we have now and toward a set of guidelines that the major space powers are willing to sign and ratify. It remains to be seen whether a better agreement will be reached in this international political environment, especially when a new treaty is not even something that many space officials, lawyers, and analysts support. However, technology and space capabilities have advanced so much since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and since the most recent UN agreement—the 1979 Moon Agreement. This requires an advance in the way international governance institutions and individual countries think about outer space property rights. It also requires a shift away from the capitalist view of land and natural resources—instead choosing a perspective similar to the idea held in Indigenous communities and by others who believe that land is not something that at its core can be bought and sold, a perspective that encompasses much more respect and reverence for these natural resources.