The Ownership of the Moon, Part 1

by Duncan Lunan

“The Moon belangs tae Gagarin, the skies are nae langer free”, sang Matt McGinn, after Kruschev promised that Yuri Gagarin would be the first man on the Moon.  That’s not the song about Yuri to the tune of Johnny’s So Long at the Fair, commemorating Gagarin’s visit to the Boilermakers in Manchester, which was by Roddy McMillan.  Josh Macrae sang it to Yuri himself, at the World Development Congress in Moscow, and Gagarin so liked the song that he arranged for it to be recorded.  It became a hit in Russia before Josh left. “On every lamppost [In Moscow] was hung a loudspeaker and they were all playing his recording.”  (Fraser Bruce, The Folk River, Tales from the Early Scottish Folk Scene, p. 263 ‘Roddy McMillan’ and p.269, ‘Josh Macrae’, Traditional Arts Development, Kilmarnock, 2022. The words and music, and that it became a hit in Moscow, then throughout Russia, can be found on Gagarin.)

Matt continued, “Kennedy says if he gets there, he’ll save it for you and me./ But I don’t believe the lies of such blokes/ He’ll hide it below the ground in Fort Knox”.  In the 1950 George Pal film Destination Moon, the first thing US astronauts do on reaching the Moon is to lay claim to it.  The Soviets claimed that their first deep-space probe Luna 1  (renamed ‘Mechta’, Dream)  had not been intended to reach the Moon, but the giveaway was that it carried plaques bearing the Soviet coat of arms, which could in theory be used to justify future territorial claims  (Fig. 1).  Identical ones were carried by Luna 2, which did hit the Moon, and by the first probes to Venus and Mars, both of which failed in flight.

Fig. 1. Luna 2 Pennant replica, Patrick Pelletier, Wikpedia 2013

On October 4th, 1957, the news of the first artificial satellite was broken in the west at a dance:  the head of the US delegation to a scientific congress stopped the music to say, “I’ve just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit… I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.”  ‘It was’, NASA’s official history goes on, ‘a gracious and dignified beginning to a period of mental turmoil and soul-searching in the United States which can scarcely be described as dignified.’  (Constance McLaughlin Green, Milton Lomask, Vanguard – a History, NASA SP-4202, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.)  Among the less dignified were the attempts of some US politicians to prohibit the Sputnik from crossing the United States.  In that orbit, it couldn’t help doing so, and there was nothing the USA could do to prevent it.

Fig. 2. Earth atmosphere layers

Traditionally, a nation’s territory extends from the centre of the Earth upwards to infinity.  The limit of the atmosphere is often taken as a meaningful boundary  (Fig. 2), but the question is by no means resolved.  For example, equatorial nations have tried more than once to lay claim to the geosynchronous orbit used by communications satellites, and have managed to obtain payment for their use.  Ownership of the Moon is still more controversial.  The 1967 United Nations Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, to which 89 countries were signatories by 1987, declares “There shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies… Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty”.

In the late 1970’s, an international committee formulated a much stronger version which became known as ‘The Moon Treaty’, describing lunar resources as “the common heritage of mankind”, banning claims of ownership on the basis of national sovereignty and placing such restrictions on ownership that many space advocates saw it as forbidding all western-style industrial lunar development.  Much was made of the absurdity of the inspection clause, whereby any of the hundred-odd signatory nations could demand, at any time, on-site inspection of space or lunar , facilities of any space-faring nation, at the latter’s expense.  It would have been an effective way for Moscow and its followers to paralyse the activities of any western nation, commercial or otherwise.

And that was, or should have been, the real sticking point.  The supervisory Moon Treaty regime was to be based in Moscow and approved there, presumably with power of veto.  For just one example, it had always been insisted in Russia that any advanced civilisation contacted in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, would be run on Marxist-Leninist principles because communism was the only possible model for advanced societies.  Any proposal for a SETI radio observatory on the lunar Farside, away from Earth’s radio noise, would presumably have to include a mission statement that finding such societies was the object of the exercise.  Proposals to develop and utilise lunar resources on a commercial basis, or even to support western space exploration, presumably could expect even shorter shrift.

Space, as it seemed, was to be the inheritance of socialist regimes only.  In the interests of detente, US President Jimmy Carter proposed to sign the new Treaty, as did Mrs. Thatcher:  opposition arose on both sides of the Atlantic from space advocacy groups, devoted to promoting space development and opposing programme cuts.  After President Reagan took office, the UK and US decisions on the Treaty were postponed indefinitely.  Nevertheless it was signed by enough nations to pass into international law –  including France and Canada, who are partners with the UK in the European Space Agency.

Many US space advocates concentrated on the supposedly invidious “common heritage” clause, making it incumbent on US capitalists to share the Moon with nations who “hadn’t earned it.”  

Fig. 3. The Man Who Sold the Moon, Pan edition, 1955

When territorial rights extended upwards from the centre of the Earth to infinity, Robert A. Heinlein’s character in The Man Who Sold the Moon  (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1953 – Fig. 3), tried to acquire it by buying 51% of the land around the equator of the Earth.  Russia, he rightly predicted, would oppose any such idea because she had no land south of the 29th parallel, beyond which the Moon never goes.  It wouldn’t work, though.  Owning 51% of the equatorial countries doesn’t give you any rights at all over the other 49%.  Likewise, now that everyone owns a share of the Moon, it’s not possible to take that right away again except by force.

Another view holds that if you do nothing with the rights you own, then they are forfeit.  The precedent is Locke’s Second Essay, which influenced the US Constitution, especially with its doctrine of the separation of governmental powers.  In Locke’s view, one acquires ownership over land or resources by “admixing one’s labour therewith”.  But there are problems with the idea that one’s labour can be “admixed” with a vacuum.  INTELSAT, the multi-national communications satellite organisation, makes use of geosynchronous orbit without owning it, and claims by equatorial nations to segments of the orbit have not been accepted, though they’ve been allowed to charge for ‘slots’ over their territories.  The 1967 Treaty puts no limit on the altitude to which territorial claims can be extended, but the implication is that such claims cease where aerodynamic resistance becomes insignificant.  In 1979, the UN Legal Subcommittee for Outer Space started work on a convention to demarcate states’ frontiers of sovereignty at an altitude of 100 km over their territory, measured from sea level.  As regards orbits around the Moon and other celestial bodies, the Moon Treaty excludes them from territorial claims.  At one extreme, based on Locke’s reasoning, nobody owns anything up there.  At the other  (best expressed in the title of James Blish’s Get Out of My Sky!)  one has total control of what happens over one’s head, to infinity.  It’s the job of diplomacy to set limits to that asserted control, to seek compromise.  The alternative, confrontation and the use of company cops, is what one expects of robber barons.  One might have hoped that the world had moved on from those days.

However, the 1967 Treaty came under attack in 1993, and with it the whole principle of freedom of access to space.  The self-styled ‘American Space Council’  (ASC) announced its intention ‘to create a spacefaring civilization with communities beyond the Earth in our lifetime’, defined as “100 people living on the Moon by the year 2010”.  Other space advocacy groups had similar aims, but the ASC’s went a great deal further.  The details of the Initiative were controversial indeed, beginning:

“1. U.S. should amend or withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty of 1967;

“2. U.S. should claim the northern hemisphere of the Moon as U.S. territory…

“5. U.S. should develop its lunar territory with the intention of establishing a 51st state of the Union.”

It’s obvious where the controversy APPEARS to lie – with the theft of the Common Heritage.  The resources of the Moon belong to all of us, in due proportion, to be settled by international agreement.   It always was ours, and the nations of the world met in solemn conclave and decided to enshrine that in international law.  It’s not something that ‘U.S.’ gave to us as a present and can take back at whim, though that was how the ASC put it.  “We gave it away, and now we’re taking it back.”  The USA is already committed in principle to upholding that heritage:  it was stated in writing on the plaque on the Apollo 11 Descent Module, “We came in peace for all mankind”  (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Apollo 11 plaque

Right here, in Scotland, oddly enough, it became an issue and was rightly dealt with.  Neil Armstrong is descended from one of the most powerful families of Border raiders, in the days when Scotland and England were separate and anything on the edge was fair game.  The Glasgow Herald drew attention to this, and within days of the landing, it was commemorated in a wonderful song by Buff Wilson.  But when subsequently the town of Langholm made Armstrong a Freeman  (Fig. 5 & 6), some journalists suggested that in truth he had claimed the Moon for Scotland.  And the smile dropped right off his face:  he said with great force, and on the air, that the Moon was international territory and the effort of his crew had been directed to no other end.

Oddly enough, although Neil Armstrong landed south of the lunar equator, the ASC had decided to annex the northern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the rest to whoever could reach and make use of it – like a pirate crew generously leaving half their loot on the dockside.  But the true issue there is not ownership but the right of free passage, incorporated in the 1967 Treaty which the ASC wished to rescind. 

Since the Moon has no atmosphere, so where would the ASC set the boundary of their claim to the space above its northern hemisphere?   If they really meant their assurances that they welcome the space efforts of other nations, it would have to be very close.  Lunar orbit can be as low as 50,000 feet above the surface, just enough to clear the highest mountains.  And since the plane of any orbit about the Moon has to pass through its centre, only an orbit EXACTLY in the plane of the lunar equator could avoid passing over ‘U.S.’ territory.  In reality, the Moon is far from being a perfect sphere, and has major irregularities in its core, mantle and crust.  Any orbit around it would diverge from a perfect plane and HAVE to pass over ‘U.S.’ territory, so safe passage would have to be assured down to very low level.  Otherwise, only direct landings on the ‘free’ southern hemisphere would be possible.

Perhaps the ASC limit would be gravitational?  On the line joining the centres of the Earth and Moon, the Moon’s gravity dominates for the 38,000 miles nearer the Moon, and the Moon’s sphere of influence within the Earth’s is a roughly spherical ‘bubble’ of that radius.  (I’m grateful to Prof. Archie Roy for help with this part of the argument.)  Where the ASC would put the boundary is anyone’s guess;  but actually, the radius of territory claimed is not the key issue.

The most effective launch from any site on Earth is due east, to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation, 1000 mph at the equator.   If the launch site is not on the equator, then the payload launched due east goes into an orbit whose inclination to the equator equals the latitude of the launch site.  As explained last week, the Moon’s declination – terrestrial latitude projected on to the sky – varies from 28o 36′ N to 28o 36′ S, over a cycle of 18.61 years in which the plane of the Moon’s orbit precesses right round the sky, due to the pull of the Earth and Moon’s equatorial bulges on one another plus the pull of the Sun.  Kennedy Space Center, at 28o 30′ N, and Pad 39, from which the Apollo missions were launched, is at 28o 36′ N, to be precise, so it’s right on the northerly limit for launching to the Moon without an orbital plane change. Plane changes are difficult and expensive manoeuvres:  this is why the Russians, whose launch sites are all far north of the USA’s, Europe’s, Japan’s and China’s, made little use of geosynchronous orbit for many years after the rest.

As the Moon goes round the Earth, at first sight the ASC would claim the upper half of a torus enclosing the Earth as their territorial space;  radius unspecified, but somewhere between 50,000 feet and 38,000 miles above the visible surface.  But because the Moon doesn’t orbit in the equatorial plane of the Earth, the ASC claim would not only take in all the northern half of the torus, but also its southerly hemisphere down to 28o 36′ S.  But there is a further 9′ variation up and down in declination, known as nutation, caused by the pull of the Earth’s equatorial bulge on the Moon, taking effect during the 18.61 year cycle of the nodes, bringing the range in declination to just over 28¾o N and S.

The Moon’s pole star is Zeta Draconis, declination 65o 46′ N, so its equatorial plane as it orbits the Earth sweeps out an angle of 24o 14′ above and below the plane of our own equator, over the 18.61 year cycle.   Adding that to the 28¾o we already have brings us to 53o, in round figures.  And the Moon’s axis precesses in the same period, by 3o;  consequently, we have to add another l½o to the band of declination already claimed as the territory of ‘U.S.’.   It brings us to a staggering total of 144½o:  the whole of the northern hemisphere plus the southern one down to 54½o S.  (Fig. 7 was originally created for an article about this called ‘Hands Off Our Moon’)

Fig. 7. Regression of the Lunar Nodes and precession of the lunar axis (Duncan Lunan, 1993)

That is an awful lot of sky.  On a scale diagram it would look like nothing much:  a small part of the volume governed by Earth’s gravitational field, out to far past the Moon.  But if you’re trying to reach the Moon, to get to the southern hemisphere of the Moon without entering U.S. territorial space, and without a plane change, if you launch due east then your launch site on Earth has to be somewhere south of 54½o S.  There are no land masses down there except Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

From so far south the benefits of launching eastwards have all but vanished.  Nothing prevents anyone with a more northerly launch site from throwing away the advantage of due east launch and adopting a launch azimuth – polar if necessary – which will allow a free path to the Moon without entering U.S. territorial space around it, but it would be a much more costly undertaking than a more efficient launch would be, since it also involves a direct landing on the Moon from approach trajectory, with no use of parking orbits or Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.  It would require boosters even bigger than the Nova, proposed for direct landing on the Moon, which NASA dropped in the 60s in favour of Saturn V and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous;  much bigger than the world has ever seen.   While nominally the ASC’s ‘U.S.’ is leaving half the Moon free, for all the other 95% of the human race, in practise the northern hemisphere claim makes the southern hemisphere almost impossible for anyone else to get to.  And another of their assertions is that ‘U.S.’ can lay claim to anything anybody else is temporarily not using…

In 1986, I attended a meeting of the L5 society in Oakland, California, on the subject of the Strategic Defence Initiative.  A video was shown, demonstrating how a beam weapon platform could destroy a missile in the later stages of launch.  I pointed out that the vehicle shown was not a missile, but a Soyuz booster with escape tower:  in other words, what the simulation showed was the destruction by the USA of another nation’s manned spacecraft.   And, I pointed out, this could extend to any launch the USA didn’t like – for example, any commercial launch which was deemed to be competing with US interests.  (I haven’t been able to find that image of the Soyuz destruction online, but I have found several different ones portraying ESA’s Ariane V as a threat – Fig. 8.)  At the subsequent science fiction convention in San Diego, I tried to make the same point and was shouted down by SDI advocates.  The USA would never do such a thing!  And yet,  the US did mine the harbours of Nicaragua…

Fig. 8. Ariane V depicted as a threat and SDI target

Dressing up the lunar mine as the 51st state isn’t going to help, only provide a further challenge in the present and guarantee trouble in the future.  Why, for example, should lunar settlers pay federal taxes for programmes on Earth which will bring them no benefit?  After only one generation, perhaps after only a year or two of acclimatisation to lunar gravity, the settlers will never be able to visit the Earth – not the land, at any rate.  They will not be able to elect their own people to represent them in Congress and Senate:  the post will be a sinecure for terrestrial politicians who won’t even have to visit the Moon on whistle-stop tours if they all agree not to.  In Man and the Planets  (Ashgrove Press, 1983)  ASTRA tried to show that any constructive approach to lunar development must include provision for independence and for Earth-Moon system federation, as a prelude to Solar System federation, and with the Moon as the most likely future seat of government  (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. ‘The Inheritance’, by Ed Buckley’, 1964, black-and-white in ‘Man & the Planets’, 1983

With Man and the Planets, Starseed and Waverider (ON, November 20th and 27th, 2022), by 1983 Scotland’s space society ASTRA was already on record in print with positive and constructive proposals for the future development of the Moon.  The ASC’s Luna 2010 Initiative was structured as if we’d never written any of it:  it would have been a huge backward step, the worst idea for application of lunar resources since Britain, Spain and Austria proposed to pull down the Moon with magnets and roll it about over Bonaparte  (‘Romance of the Moon’, Eagle centrespread, February 21st 1958).  It belonged with the imperialism of that time, a return to 19th century attitudes the world thought it had forgotten.   But it hadn’t, as we shall see next week.

(To be continued).

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