COMMENTARY | A proposal in Popular Science to declare the moon an “International Park” is not only ill titled but filled with contradictions. The proposal seems to at once forbid economic development on the moon and permit it.
To be sure some kind of international agreement that protects areas of historical value, such as the Apollo landing sites, will no doubt be needed. But such an agreement would also need to set forth the parameters of property rights and economic development. The reference to the infamous Moon Treaty in the proposal does not give one confidence.
“Instead of passing piecemeal bills, let’s go all the way. The moon was part of Earth until about 4.5 billion years ago, according to current models. It could answer key questions about the history of our planet and therefore needs to be protected. The entire moon should be an international history and science preserve-an Off-World Heritage site, if you will.
“It will take a treaty among interested nations to manage the moon with an eye for peaceful purposes and scientific investigation. Space buffs may recall that this was one of the goals of the UN Moon Agreement of 1979, which flopped spectacularly, arguably a victim of the Cold War era. Only 15 nations agreed to it-none of which had space-faring capabilities.”
Actually, as law Professor Glenn Reynolds pointed out, the objections to the Moon Treaty had little to do with Cold War politics and much to do with “common heritage of mankind” language that would have inhibited economic development of Earth’s closest neighbor. This was too much even for the Carter era Senate, which refused to ratify the treaty.
Popular Science seems to acknowledge this when, while basing its proposal on the Antarctica Treaty of 1959, presented certain exceptions.
“A preservation treaty for the moon would need a few special clauses. For example, while there’s a voluntary moratorium on mining in Antarctica, it doesn’t make sense to ban the practice on the moon: That’s one of the incentives to get us there. Rare substances, such as helium-3 (a possible fuel for nuclear power), are the sort of rewards that will motivate the development of private spaceflight and off-world habitation. So mining should be allowed, pending environmental-impact assessments similar to those conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. As for tourism, we don’t need to wrap the moon in no trespassing signs, but let’s keep ATVs away from important craters.”
Of course the devil is in the details. Setting up a government bureaucracy to dictate what will be and will not be permitted on the moon is fraught with the potential for mischief. Any treaty involving the moon should set out strict parameters to make sure that economic development is encouraged and not inhibited.
Of course this is predicated on the notion that the United States would be interested in the moon at all. As Paul Spudis recently wrote, China seems to be the only country with an eye on the moon and its resources. Its lackadaisical regard for environmental matters does not provide one with hope.
Mark R, Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, Dreams of Barry’s Stepfather, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper