Who Owns the Moon?

An article by Frans von der Dunk, Prof at the University of Nebraska, explains the 1967 Outer Space Treaty’s implications for owning resources extracted from the Moon, asteroids, or other celestial bodies.

The Outer Space Treaty is the one international agreement that truly governs prospective national, commercial, and international space activities. For the purpose to the Treaty, a commercial activity conducted by a company incorporated in a country counts as a national activity of that country.

Von der Dunk gives an overview of two competing interpretations, that of the United States and Luxembourg (as the gateway to the European Union) and that of countries such as Russia and somewhat less explicitly Brazil and Belgium.

The United States and the EU appear to argue that the Moon and other bodies in the solar system are Global Commons for which countries can license their commercial entities to mine, remove, and profit from resources they extract. One way to understand the global commons concept may be to think of it in the metaphor of the old English Commons, which was a piece of land set aside by the crown for the residents of a village to graze livestock, cut wood, grow vegetables, or hunt.

The Russian position appears to argue that any exploitation of lunar or asteroidal resources should somehow benefit all of humanity. It is not really clear how that benefit would be paid or distributed or to whom.

Transported to early New England, the English commons became the town commons that charged a fee for residents to use it, which provided the funding for the local school. This evolution may be analogous to the Russian interpretation, although it is unclear how they would propose to collect or donate those fees.

Significantly, van der Dunk does not even mention the 1979 Moon Treaty, which hasn’t been signed by the major space-faring nations.

Editorial note

(by Giulio Prisco)

It’s almost 50 years since the last person walked on the Moon… But perhaps the times they are a-changin’.

Now that the major space-faring powers, and in particular the U.S., China and Europe, seem determined to go back to the Moon and build a permanent human presence there, the question of who owns the Moon becomes more and more actual.

The idealist in me think that space should benefit all of humanity. But the pragmatist in me realizes that nobody pushes major projects that benefit all humanity for idealistic reasons alone, without tangible rewards. In the real world, nations want power (and money) and corporations want money (and power).

Therefore, considering the Moon and the planets as space commons for which countries can license their commercial entities to mine, remove, and profit from resources they extract, seems sensible to me and the best way ahead in today’s world.

At the same time, all players who stand to benefit from space activities should contribute to the development and maintenance of infrastructures for the space commons. At this moment, we have to rely on the good will and common sense (both scarce commodities) of existing powers, as well as on existing national laws and international agreements.

Smarter systems for the optimal development and exploitation of the space commons could be deployed in the future. In “Radical Markets” (2018), Microsoft researcher Glen Weyl and Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, propose COST (common ownership self-assessed tax) and quadratic voting as smart ways to manage the commons.

These Radical Markets solutions, which have been endorsed and expanded by Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, seem suitable and promising for the space commons.

I think at some point it will be desirable, and perhaps necessary, to loosen the grip of national powers on space settlements, which should be considered as Special Economic Zones under global oversight. Something like Ulex, an open-source legal system under development, could be used.

This is a blog post by Space Decentral, a decentralized autonomous space agency.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.