The guiding laws of space are defined by the Outer Space Treaty, from 1967, which has been signed by a hundred and eight countries, including all those with substantial space programs. “Laws that govern outer space are similar to the laws for the high seas,” Alain Berinstain, the vice-president of global development at the lunar-exploration company Moon Express, explained. “If you are two hundred miles away from the continental shelf, those waters don’t belong to anybody—they belong to everybody.” Moon Express describes the moon as the eighth continent. The company, which is based in Florida, is hoping to deliver its first lander to the moon in 2020; on board will be telescopes and the Celestis cremains. “If you look down at the waters from your ship and see fish, those fish belong to everybody,” Berinstain continued. “But, if you put a net down and pull those fish onto the deck of the ship, they’re yours. This could change, but right now that is how the U.S. is interpreting the Outer Space Treaty.”
Individual countries have their own interpretations of the treaty, and set up their own regulatory frameworks. Luxembourg promotes itself as “a unique legal, regulatory and business environment” for companies devoted to space resources, and is the first European country to pass legislation similar to that of the U.S., deeming resources collected in space to be ownable by private entities.
It’s not difficult to imagine moon development, like all development, proceeding less than peacefully, and less than equitably. (At least, unlike with colonization on Earth, there are no natives whose land we’re taking, or so we assume.) Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, said, “I’m really glad that all these countries, all these companies, are going to the moon. But there will be problems.” Any country can withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty by giving a year’s notice. “If any country feels it has a sufficient lead in space, that is a motivation to withdraw from the treaty,” he said.
So there is a tacit space race already. On the one hand, every national space agency applauded the success of the Chang’e-4 lander. The mission had science partnerships with Germany, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden. NASA collaborates with many countries in space, sharing data, communications networks, and expertise. Russian rockets bring American astronauts to the International Space Station. When, in response to economic sanctions, the head of the Russian space agency said that maybe the American astronauts could get to the I.S.S. by trampoline, the comment was dismissed as posturing. Still, NASA has contracted with Boeing and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, to begin taking astronauts to the I.S.S. this year—which means the U.S. will no longer rely on Russia for that. Russia and China say they will work together on a moon base. NASA used to collaborate with the China National Space Administration; in 2011, six months after members of NASA visited the C.N.S.A., Congress passed a bill that effectively prohibited collaboration.
It’s natural to want to leave the moon undisturbed; it’s also clear that humanity will disturb it. But do we need to live there? Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, envisages zoning the moon for heavy industry, and Earth for light industry and residential purposes. Bezos’s company Blue Origin is developing reusable rockets intended to bring humans reliably back and forth from space, with the long-term goal of creating manufacturing plants there, in zero gravity. Earth would be eased of its industrial burden, and the lower-gravity conditions would be beneficial for making certain goods, such as fibre-optic cables.
“There’s the argument that we’ve destroyed the Earth and now we’re going to destroy the moon. But I don’t see it that way,” Metzger said. “The resources in space are billions of times greater than on Earth. Space pretty much erases everything we do. If you crush an asteroid to dust, the solar wind will blow it away. We can’t really mess up the solar system.”