Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, private space companies are raising questions about the rules governing space.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” the astronaut Michael Collins said, watching as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, his fellow-members of the Apollo 11 mission, worked to plant the U.S. flag in the moon’s dusty surface. That first moon landing was fifty years ago this July. Since then, the space race has changed. No longer a contest between Cold War enemies for military advantage or planetary bragging rights, the new space race is between a slew of private companies who see outer space as an untapped wellspring of mineral resources.
Moon Express is one of the organizations that has plans to send commercial missions to the moon, potentially to mine for water, which is valuable in space exploration, and platinum, which is, of course, valuable back on Earth. At the end of May, NASA awarded contracts totalling more than two hundred and fifty million dollars to three private companies—Astrobiotic, Intuitive Machines, and Orbit Beyond—that will carry payloads for scientific missions to the moon over the next two years. As Jack Burns, the director of NASA’s Network for Exploration and Space Science, told The New Yorker’s Rivka Galchen, it’s official: “The moon is hot again.” Burns said that advances in engineering are making it feasible to construct habitats on the moon, and possible to use the moon as a launching point for deeper space exploration.
As interest in the moon heats up—for use as a way station or as a source of mineral wealth—conflict promises to follow. In the video above, people studying the evolving area of outer-space law discuss how humans have agreed to share space, and what parameters exist for laying claim to the moon and other celestial bodies. Steven Mirmina, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown Law Center and a senior attorney for NASA, says, “Where there are people, there are going to be disputes, and where there are disputes, thankfully, they are going to need more lawyers.”
Right now, space law is an open area, with boundaries that will evolve as humans’ use of space continues to expand and change. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., was really a disarmament agreement, in which both nations agreed not to put nuclear weapons in space. It also prohibits nations from laying claim to ownership of the moon and other celestial bodies. “All countries have the ability to use and explore outer space, but there can be no appropriation,” Mirmina says. But these broad guidelines leave plenty of unanswered questions. Fifty years ago, the signatories of the treaty would have had a hard time imagining private space flight, the proliferation of space junk, and the idea of asteroid mining. The field of space law will have to deal with these issues. Mirmina sees this as an exciting time, and as an opportunity for lawyers and judges to draw on other international frameworks—those governing Arctic exploration or the open oceans—to make brand-new law. In 2012, a Caltech paper detailed a procedure for harnessing an asteroid—proposing a plan for lassoing a valuable asteroid by catching it in a giant drawstring bag. An impressive feat, and one that might even be legal.