The Ownership of the Moon, Part 2

by Duncan Lunan

One question to deal with is whether the Moon has any resources worth debating. The usual objection at this point is that there is nothing on the Moon  (or anywhere else)  which it would be economic to access and ship back to Earth.  Indeed that’s true, if you start from here.  But once a transport system is set up for any other reasons  (scientific, say, or political), shipping raw materials or product down the gravity well becomes very much cheaper.  Once orbital factories are created around the Earth, they can always be supplied cheaper from the Moon than from the Earth, because the Moon has no atmosphere and its gravity is so much lower.  Using solar-powered electromagnetic launch, delivery to Earth can be virtually free, once the transport system is set up. 

When Lunar Prospector discovered indications of water at the lunar south pole, my friend Bonnie Cooper calculated that even a crater 800 metres across could be worth $1.25 billion to a lunar miner  – if she could lay claim to it  (Space Resource News, March 1995).  Under the existing UN treaties governing celestial bodies, it would be difficult to claim ownership but she could still charge for the labour of extraction.  It’s not realistic to value the water at the cost of shipment from Earth, but even if it was valued at 1% of that, it might fetch $12.5 million.

The Moon is rich in aluminium, titanium, nickel and radioactive ores, even at the surface.  Lecturing at the Calton Hill Observatory in the 1978 Edinburgh Festival, Dr. David Antia of Glasgow University suggested that much higher concentrations could be found below the lunar maria, concentrated by settling out as the lava which filled them cooled.  A similar process concentrated uranium in magma below Oklo in the Gabon, creating a natural nuclear reactor which worked for hundreds of thousands of years before running out of fuel.  

The Moon is a power station:  it could make a big contribution to Earth nations’ economies just by collecting incident solar energy and beaming it to Earth.  It could make a much bigger contribution, enough to run the whole world, if its minerals were used to build solar power satellites which would be placed in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth.

However, if all the world were to rise to the per capita energy consumption of the USA, a 10o rise in global temperatures would ensue.  It’s clearly not acceptable to say that the rest of the world must live in poverty so that the USA can maintain its present energy-intensive lifestyle.  Therefore, any programme based on solar power satellites built from lunar resources would have to involve a global energy policy which impinged on the most energy-wasteful nation most of all.  And after the early 90s Earth Summit in Rio, it was clear that some of the most wealthy and powerful in that nation didn’t care for such ideas.

From their standpoint, one alternative is fusion power.  The most promising lead in that area is ‘pulsed fusion’, with deuterium and helium-3 as fuel.  Deuterium is common in sea-water, but helium-3 is extremely rare on Earth.  It is relatively common on the Moon, in the deposits of the Solar Wind on grains of lunar soil, but ‘relatively’ is a key word.  According to the 1991 report of the Synthesis Group, chaired by ex-astronaut Thomas Stafford, it would take an enormous materials processing industry on the Moon, far greater than the powersat programme, to meet just 10% of the US energy demand if that isn’t cut back.  Within two or three years of surface mining, the cleared area would be the size of the crater Tycho, visible to the naked eye from Earth.  (America at the Threshold, report chaired by Thomas Stafford, US Government Printing Office, 1991 – Fig. 1).  The scars across the lunar maria in the 2009 movie Moon are not exaggerated.  And unlike the powersat programme, lunar strip mining would be ongoing, and non-renewable.  But it would be very profitable, and it could all be automated;  100 people on the Moon might be enough to run it, without the much larger workforce in space required by the powersat-building scenarios.  Suddenly the ASC image of 100 brave homesteaders out on the frontier looks more like a company of mercenaries, ripping off internationally owned assets for the benefit of large U.S. interests.

cover art work shows an astronaut with large planets in front
Fig. 1. America at the Threshold, 1992 report

In its day, ASTRA, the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics, devoted much of its history to advocacy of the Waverider, a vehicle which can deliver to any point on Earth, from any incoming trajectory, and to ordinary runways.  Given the determination which the developing world has already shown to stake its claim to a share of extraterrestrial resources, Waverider will be of enormous importance.   It’s not going to save the world;  it’s only part of the toolkit.  If we can make even that a reality, Scotland’s former national space society will have justified its existence.   However, if what’s up there is to be seized by robber barons, they will have no need of an equable distribution system and our time will have been wasted.

Bonnie Cooper  (above)  is a geology graduate and has a Ph. D. in Geosciences, both from the University of Texas.  She and I met at the 1985 Space Development Conference in Washington, and she subsequently sent the full run of Space Resource News, which she edited for several years.  She then collaborated with aerospace engineers and managers David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe and Madhu Thangavelu to produceThe Moon:  Resources, Development and Colonization, (John Wiley, 1999 – Fig. 2).  Burton Sharpe worked as an engineer on the Apollo Lunar Experiments Package, discussed in the ‘And Finally… Part 3,’ ON, 6th November, 2022).

cover shows machinery on the moon pointing into space
Fig. 2. The Moon, Resources, Development and Colonization,

From the ASTRA viewpoint it was encouraging to see how much of the discussion paralleled our exploration of the subject in Man and the Planets  (Fig. 3), apparently independently since our book was not cited.  One area in which they agreed with us was the need for the administration of the Moon to be autonomous from Earth from the outset of permanent development, and a very interesting suggestion was that a lunar port authority could be defined as an international regulatory regime, complying with the wording of the United Nations Moon Treaty.  They went into detail, considering the New York Port Authority as an example, a non-governmental body which doesn’t own the resources it controls, yet exercises a very effective regulatory regime.  This they considered to be superior to the much-discussed ‘Antarctica Model’, in which a series of ad hoc arrangements are allowed to arise at need and as opportunity presents itself.  As we did, the authors concluded that would be a recipe for future conflict, between settlements and ultimately between the Moon and Earth.  Instead, the lunar authority should be allowed to evolve towards full sovereignty and national bases on the Moon should never be allowed more than local authority.  

Fig. 3. Man and the Planets, 1983, cover by Gavin Roberts, Waverider approaching Titan

At the Fifth Lunar Science Conference of 1984, astronaut Joseph Allan said, “This [conference] programme sounds like a planning session for the exploration of the Moon.  We’ll do it right next time.”   The Moon, Resources, Future Development and Colonization went a long way in the right direction.  And yet, within 15 years, one might have imagined that both it and Man and the Planets had never been written.   

By then, once again, right-wing groups in the USA were calling for the nation to withdraw unilaterally from the 1967 Treaty, supposedly because it’s a brake on private enterprise.  The new focus was on the asteroids, aroused by ongoing studies aimed at protecting the Earth from impacts.  Several US companies were announcing long-term plans for commercial operations, with no mention of the Treaty and what looked like an ominous silence from the White House.  All the same arguments were trotted out again, in particular the one that nobody can make money out of land unless they own it.  Historically this is nonsense:  technically, nobody in Scotland owned any land until the Scottish Government recently abolished the historical relic of ‘feu duty’. 

In December 2006, I organised a meeting on ‘The Ownership of Extraterrestrial Resources’ between Scottish opponents of the Treaty and the late Prof. Angus McAllister of Paisley University, whose novel Cyber Puppets I reviewed here  (ON, 22nd January, 2023), and I compared his Close Quarters to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon  (ON, 15th January, 2023).  But his real best-seller, because every law student needed a copy, was his unique textbook Scottish Law of Leases  (5th edition, Bloomsbury, 2021 – Fig. 4).  What was fascinating was the assumption of the other side that they knew far more than he did:  repeatedly they would begin an argument with a sweeping statement that “The law states that…”, only for the Professor to reply, politely but firmly, “I’m very sorry to have to contradict you, but…”  Despite the claims of the US space advocates, extracting minerals and using other resources under license is very common practise, and mining leases, especially international mining leases, are a specialist area of law in themselves.  After the meeting, one of his most vocal opponents sent me a detailed and aggressive statement of the ‘true’ position, by a lawyer attached to one of the US groups, which he said would ‘put me straight’ – but it just repeated the usual half-truths and prejudices, as if the Glasgow meeting had never taken place.  I replied, “It’s just as well that we know now what the real truth is”, and heard nothing further.

Fig. 4. Scottish Law of Leases, 5th edition, 2021

Between 2007 and 2018 the Google Lunar X-Prize competition offered a prize for the first privately funded team to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 metres and send images back to Earth.  Of 33 attempting entrants, none made the final extended deadline, and only the Israeli SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander and the Japanese Hakuto-R have actually been launched to date, both crashing on final approach, with more attempts to come.  The US Astrobotic Peregrine and Griffin landers are coming, much bigger vehicles which already have dozens of contracts to deliver payloads to the Moon  (Fig. 5).  Peregrine is to launch on the Vulcan booster which Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company has developed as the USAF’s successor to Atlas V and Delta Heavy, being phased out after decades of service.  After a test stand explosion earlier this year, the Vulcan/Centaur V combination has now completed a successful static fire test, and the Peregrine launch is expected this summer.  The even larger Griffin will fly on Space-X’s Falcon Heavy, which already has 6 successful launches behind it.

Fig. 5. Astrobotic Peregrine lander (front), Vulcan launch, Griffin lander for Falcon Heavy launch

Those probes are currently dedicated to scientific exploration only, but looking at the proposed landing sites for the Lunar X-Prize contenders  (Fig. 6), it’s not hard to see how unregulated commercial development could lead to the conflicts between private companies envisaged in Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis  (Cornerstone, 2017 – Fig. 7). 

NASA has its own national programme with partners such as Intuitive Machines  (Fig. 8), with a Lunar Prospector and Lunar Transformer scheduled for polar landings.  China already has landers and rovers on both the Nearside and Farside of the Moon, Russia is scheduled to return to Mare Crisium this year with its much-delayed Luna 25, and ESA’s Project Aurora is developing a Polar Moonlander and a Large Logistics Module to start construction of a south polar base  (Fig. 9).  As all these programmes move forward into crewed missions and building permanent bases, it’s not hard to imagine the jockeying for key locations and the underlying threat of violence of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon  (Fig. 10).  

Behind all that, there’s the unspoken threat from Third World nations, if they feel left out of whatever lunar bonanza ensues.  Any conflicts of that sort will take place on Earth, not the Moon.  They might begin with destruction of launch sites – the USA has only three, all of them coastal, and the installations of Kennedy Space Centre, scattered across a nature reserve, would be particularly hard to defend.  Bearing in mind what happened to Iraq in the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack, such a conflict could escalate a great deal further.

In 2015, in order to encourage innovation and provide assurances to its space investors, the United States passed the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act” (the “Space Resources Act”), in which it recognized the property rights of its citizens and corporations to any extracted space resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies.  It didn’t effect any change in the provisions of the 1967 UN Treaty, and commentators remarked that it relied on the vagueness of the Treaty’s wording to give the go-ahead to US industry while avoiding direct confrontation with the other states party to the Treaty.  In a December 2021 policy statement, United States Space Priorities Framework, the White House committed to:

“Preserving Space for Current and Future Generations

“As space activities evolve, the norms, rules, and principles that guide outer space activities also must evolve.  The United States will lead in the responsible, peaceful, and sustainable exploration and use of outer space.

“The United States will lead in strengthening global governance of space activities.  The United States will engage the international community to uphold and strengthen a rules-based international order for space.  The United States, working with commercial industry, allies, and partners, will promote the implementation of existing measures and lead in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities. The United States will demonstrate how space activities can be conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner.”

I would have been more encouraged if I hadn’t been interviewed nine months later by a US radio station whose presenters, I later learned, maintained that everything in space was US property;  NASA were traitors for cooperating with Europe;  all ESA members including Britain were communists;  President Biden was a Chinese puppet;  ‘and mair o’ horribu’ an’ awfu’, including claims that they spoke for the majority of the US public, and the overthrow of the government would not be long in coming.  As I used to say in the days when I read The Daily Telegraph for its science coverage, it’s important to be reminded that not everyone agrees with oneself about everything.

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