40 Years After Lunar Landing, Who Owns Space?

Sisi Tang

The 40th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing brings to mind the NASA mission in June to shoot a Centaur rocket into the moon to test for the presence of water ice and examine lunar debris. With a full 5,600 mph impact on the moon’s surface projected in October, the collision will create a six-mile high debris above the moon’s surface. While some think this massive explosion is “flat-out cool,” the mission also brings into light a different question: the legal framework for actions in space. A 1979 UN treaty on activities on celestial bodies says that “States Parties shall not place in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the moon objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or place or use such weapons on or in the moon.” The treaty was a likely response to the Cold War space zeitgeist and Reagan’s “Star Wars.” Although officially scrapped by the Clinton Administration, remnants exist in its Bush administration successor program, the Missile Defense Agency. The treaty’s hope for “peaceful uses of outer space” prompts a question: To what extent does international law regulating the seas apply to space—i.e. who has the rights to occupy space with satellites, not to mention ballistic satellites hovering over the earth? Should there be a set of international laws restricting activities on space? Does NASA need to seek international permission to, say, blow up a piece of the moon, steal a chunk of Mars, or paint Venus blue? (Okay, I'm kidding about the latter two scenarios.) Still aspiring to achieve space superiority in this unregulated space race and expand outward, the Missile Defense Agency has requested $169 million for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program and $60 million to begin installing missile defense capability on six more Aegis ships, according to a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. With the Air Force Space Command Strategic Master Plan, the United States hopes to boost its space superiority. But Russia and China are responding with their own anti-ballistic tests and ventures above ground. The Plan states that “[p]lanners should consider integrating future development capabilities, such as the capability to deliver attacks from space, into the campaign plan when determining how best to strike adversary Centers of Gravity (COG).” A Carnegie Endowment policy brief states, in response to China’s anti-satellite testing, that “though the U.S. should continue to keep space free of weapons, it has no choice but to run the offence race and win if its space assets are threatened.” The other component of space rights pertains to entrepreneurs with appetites for business on the moon. In terms of squatter’s rights on the moon, National Geographic did a piece on advertising and media with aspirations for the moon, and a Lunar Embassy Corporation selling lunar real estate despite a U.N. treaty: Dennis Hope, head of the Lunar Embassy Corporation, has sold real estate on the moon and other planets to about 3.7 million people so far. So Hope started his own government in 2004, which has a ratified constitution, a congress, a unit of currency—even a patent office. Again, a clear international legal framework for property rights on the moon is at best ambiguous, and lacks enforcement potential.

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Sisi Tang, a former student of history, is now a writer and traveler based in Istanbul.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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