“Moon colonies” or “Moon bases” are dismissed by many as the stuff of science fiction, only possible in the distant future. These people are sorely mistaken: Humanity is tantalizingly close to establishing a permanent settlement on our beloved Moon.
A multitude of entities have plans to travel to the Moon and form a colony, some even within the next ten years. NASA, for example, estimates that a “sustained presence” can be developed by 2028 with a $1.6 billion budget increase. NASA scientists claim that a Moon colony can be funded with $10 billion, a fairly low number considering the magnitude of the task. Russia has also made plans to colonize the Moon by 2030, and Japan and China have expressed interest in establishing bases in the near future. Even private entities are looking to settle our lunar satellite: Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin plans to complete a manned mission to the Moon in the early 2020s, hoping to pave the way for its goal of establishing a colony.
Why would anybody be interested in going to the Moon in the first place? Other than the obvious “cool” factor, there are quite a few practical reasons. For starters, the Moon contains an abundance of resources that are relatively scarce on Earth, such as titanium and helium-3. The latter could prove to be very useful in resolving humanity’s energy crisis, given its potential applications in nuclear fusion. Furthermore, knowledge gained in colonizing the Moon could be used in other extraterrestrial colonization efforts important to humanity’s future. Colonies on the Moon would also be cheaper launchpads for spacecraft, as gravity is far lower on the Moon than on Earth. The Moon may also have the potential for tourism, though most ideas now are just for fly-bys, and anything more would likely not materialize until well into the future once initial bases are established. Lastly, who wouldn’t want the pride, glory, and sense of accomplishment of constructing a habitable Moon base?
Although the Moon presents many exciting opportunities, it would be irresponsible to overlook the potential for conflict. Issues of sovereignty, mineral rights, and legal jurisdiction will inevitably arise as human presence on the Moon becomes increasingly feasible. Therefore, new international legislation must be proposed in order to preserve the moon and other celestial bodies as the heritage of all of humanity, prevent monopoly by any single country, and ensure order and justice.
There are two existing legislative treaties that may begin to offer guidance on the matter. The first of these, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, is ambiguous at best. While it does expressly forbid ownership of celestial bodies, it also allows any entity free access to all of space. Its main—and perhaps only—function is preventing the militarization of space with weapons of mass destruction, given the Cold War backdrop against which it was signed. Ostensibly, a state has free reign as long as it does not claim to “own” the Moon and does not use it for the placement of weapons of mass destruction. Private entities are entitled to the same privileges if they obtain authorization and submit to limited supervision. The treaty is thus grossly insufficient in addressing the majority of the political problems that will become unavoidable should settlement become a reality.
The second treaty, the Moon Treaty, first signed in 1979, is stronger than its predecessor. It addresses activities such as extraterrestrial mining and, crucially, labels outer space as the “common heritage of all mankind,” thus subjecting all celestial bodies to international law. However, unlike the Outer Space Treaty, the Moon Treaty is effectively powerless, as it has only been signed by a few countries, none of which have space-faring capabilities. And even if it were widely ratified, it was not designed with any consideration for the possibility of human settlement on the Moon. It also falls short, then, in addressing many of the problems that will come with an extensive human presence on the Moon.
Both treaties will therefore be ineffective in the event of the commercialization and politicization of the Moon. To solve this problem, humanity should draw inspiration from our South Pole. Antarctica was once an unexplored frontier, much like the Moon is now, for which the international community created legal norms. Though some nations still maintain claims to slices of the continent, they have all agreed that Antarctica is a scientific preserve, protected from military activity and resource exploitation. A similar plan should be instituted for the Moon.
Nonetheless, legislating for the Moon and other celestial bodies is a decidedly more complex task. The Moon’s economic potential is vast, and for many, outer space is a symbol of humanity’s future. Addressing these problems will require, at the very least, new legislation with backing from powerful countries like the US, Russia, and China. Such legislation will not be easy to negotiate, since it requires these countries to give up some degree of control over their activities in outer space.
One possible solution to this would be the creation of an Outer Space Council, which would oversee and determine the legality of all activity in space. Much like the United Nations Security Council, it would consist of rotating member nations, with space-faring countries in permanent member positions. This would give other countries a say in outer space affairs while at the same time still lending the most control to countries that will be conducting activities in space.
Unfortunately, most current discourse only concerns how to reach extraterrestrial bodies, not the laws that will guide and preside over their potential residents. This has to change, as current outer space treaties are woefully inadequate for mediating the conflicts to come. Even if the Moon isn’t the most flashy place in space to explore, the fact that it may be colonized within our lifetime raises questions for the future that are better answered proactively than reactively. We must decide whether space settlement will be a just process determined by laws and guidelines or a free-for-all.
Colonization of the Moon has long been a dream of humanity. While we are closer than ever to making this dream a reality, we must be careful not to let the Moon become another stage of colonial injustice, nor to allow it to simply become an extension of the most powerful countries. After all, the Moon, like all extraterrestrial bodies, is the shared heritage of humanity. We should treat it as such.
Illustration: Caroline Hu ’20
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Brown Political Review magazine.