Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is there a Moon Agreement and does it matter?

At the British Library in St Pancras y
esterday to improve my understanding of the status of the 1979 Moon Agreement.   

But I wasn’t able to stay long enough, and I'll need to wait for another visit in a few months.  Ten days ago in Galway I gave my lecture on the ethical limits to space exploration and regrettably, for lack of knowledge, I had to skate around the common heritage of mankind principle. This principle (known to insiders as CHM) is enshrined in the Moon Agreement, which hasn’t been ratified by any country of importance. Accordingly, it seems obvious that it’s a dead letter. Yet I find the Moon Agreement is frequently referred to. So is it a dead letter or isn’t it? In the BL I came across an essay explaining at some length how the Moon Agreement is indeed a dead letter [1]. And yet the very lengthiness of the essay suggested to me that the deadness of the letter is a matter of debate. In October I’ll have the chance to listen to a leading space lawyer on the subject. Perhaps I’ll have to wait till then to get a grip on this.

Staking a claim

And what, you may ask (if you’ve stayed with me thus far) has all this to do with the price of cheese?  Well it has to do with the price of minerals. There are corporations that intend to mine asteroids and the moon. This, despite my perhaps ill-chosen illustration, is a serious proposition. The CHM principle says that all minerals in space are the common heritage of mankind, and have to be shared out equitably. Moreover no-one can own asteroids or planets [2]. But the corporations that propose space mining don’t like this at all: they want private property in space.

Asteroid mining: a serious proposition (Credit: The Tech Journal)
Can any law at all apply in space? Jim Benson has something to say about this. He is now deceased and so is his Space Development Corporation, but he’s a seminal figure in space mining, and in 1997 he said he would send a spacecraft with robotic mining equipment to an asteroid. “After landing, we will ‘stake’ any mining and patent claims we believe to be possible, and then will simply declare ownership of the trillion-dollar asset. This will help draw attention to the need to establish private property rights in space.” [3]

Colonising Mars

Other topics I lump together under the ethical limits to space exploration include

•    The debate on the so-called overprotection of Mars – what are planetary protection rules for, and should they be relaxed with respect to Mars? The ultimate relaxation of planetary protection for Mars would be terraforming - is it desirable?

•    Should Mars be colonised? If so why? Are there good and bad reasons for colonising Mars? Is the Mars One project a suicide mission? Does it infringe human rights? And if so, does it matter?

•    How much invasive science should be done, such as vaporising comets?

•    What is space archaeology and is it important? What steps ought to be taken to preserve it? Is there a role for UNESCO?

The militarisation of space, which arguably dwarfs all of the above issues,  is not included. Another day’s work perhaps.

I’ve set up a dedicated website with links, which I shall add to as time and energy allow.  Also has my presentation slides.

      [1] "The 1979 Moon Agreement - where is its today?" by Carl Christol, 1999, p 273 in Space Law (part of "The Library of Essays in International Law", Francis Lyall & Paul Larsen ed., 2007)
      [2] The non-ownership principle is less contested than CHM. It's in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, Article II
      [3] Kenneth Silber, A Little Piece of Heaven, 1998