Who owns the moon owns the future

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The moon is seen on Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 10, 2022. (Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images)
The moon is seen on Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 10, 2022. (Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images)

Ice and minerals on the Moon could help humanity travel to space’s distant planets and asteroids.

Now, entrepreneurs and experts say lunar resources could speed future space travel and change life on earth.

"Helium-3 on the moon is worth $4 billion per ton. It's the most valuable thing in space," Gerald Kulcinski, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin and former director of the Fusion Technology Institute, says.

But which countries, which companies, would get the right to extract those resources?

Today, On Point: Who owns the Moon?


Michelle Hanlon, executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law. Co-founder and president of For All Moonkind, a nonprofit focused on protecting human cultural heritage in outer space.

Also Featured

Ben Bussey, chief scientist at Intuitive Machines, an American lunar services company working on three missions that will deliver NASA and commercial payloads into orbit.

Jekan Thanga, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona. Head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration Laboratory and the NASA-supported ASTEROIDS laboratory.

Gerald Kulcinski, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin and former director of the Fusion Technology Institute.

Joanne Yao, senior lecturer in international relations at Queen Mary University in London.


Part I 

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On August 23, 2023, India became the fourth ever country to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon.

Currently, only two engines are now being fired. And we are nearly at zero velocity vertical and horizontal. We were hovering and now we are approaching the moon’s surface.

CHAKRABARTI: And when it touched down, the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander made history, as the first ever craft to land on the Moon’s south pole region.


MODI: India’s successful moon mission is not just India’s alone.

CHAKRABARTI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the end there. Chandrayaan-3’s rover, Pragyan, spent two weeks exploring the Moon. It beamed pictures back to Earth and tested the temperature and makeup of the lunar soil. Then, researchers put the rover to sleep to try to protect it from the freezing lunar night. They’re still waiting to see if it will wake back up.

We’re in the midst of a burst of interest, and renewed interest, in lunar exploration. In fact, there are more than 250 planned trips to the moon in the coming decade, according to a report from space industry research companies like NSR.

Just days before India’s success, Russia tried to land its spacecraft, Luna-25, near the moon’s south pole. But Luna-25 crashed after losing communication with Earth. China’s working on a new moon rover for 2026, and says it will get astronauts there by 2030. And the U.S. hopes to send humans back to the moon on its Artemis II mission scheduled for late 2024.

And then there are the private companies.

BEN BUSSEY: We partner with different companies who make lunar rovers. So if a customer needs mobility, we can put their payloads on a rover and then deliver that rover to the moon. We also have a lunar hopper that we can take to the surface and that can fly many kilometers from the lander and do exploration.

CHAKRABARTI: Ben Bussey is the chief scientist with Intuitive Machines. His company contracts with NASA and others.

BUSSEY: The goal is for there to be, if you like, a lunar economy, to bring the moon into our economical sphere of influence.

CHAKRABARTI: So what’s on the moon that everyone is so excited about? Short answer: A lot. Ice in lunar shadows could be a source of water. And rare earth metals like scandium, yttrium and lanthanides, I'll come back to that one later, could also be used for smartphones, computers and other technology. Bussey says the lunar soil, also known as regolith, is also full of oxygen.

BUSSEY: If we can extract the oxygen there, rather than have to take all the oxygen with us from Earth, not only could that oxygen be used for, obviously for life support for crew, but oxygen is also a rocket fuel. So we could start to make our own rocket fuel on the Moon for launching back to Earth or elsewhere.

CHAKRABARTI: Researchers like Jekan Thanga at the University of Arizona are already building prototypes of swarms of moon mining robots. Thanga is also researching how NASA could use sandbags to build things like warehouses on the moon.

JEKAN THANGA: You would bring fabrics and cloth from Earth. You can embed them with microelectronic sensors. And the idea here is to build smart building blocks using the sand and gravel or whatever mixture that you have there. And from there we can now start to build semi-permanent structures.

CHAKRABARTI: And then there’s the big one – a resource considered so valuable, such a game changer, when people talk about it, it sounds like the Lunar holy grail.

It's the most valuable thing in space. Even if you had piles of diamonds on the moon, it wouldn't be worthwhile to go get them.

CHAKRABARTI: To find out why this resource is more valuable than a crater full of diamonds, you’ll have to stick with us because we'll find out a little later in the show.

But because this frenzy of desire for lunar resources raises an even more important set of questions first, we're going to be talking about those. Let alone, should humanity even be mining the moon – I’m talking about who gets to dig where? Who gets to use and profit from those lunar resources? Or, put another way, who owns the moon?

Now one of the greatest joys of this job day in and day out is we get to talk to experts in all manner of fields that you wouldn't even imagine including space law. Michelle Hanlon is a space lawyer and the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi's Law School. She's also editor in chief of the Journal of Space Law and co-founder and president of "For All Moonkind," a non-profit focused on protecting human cultural heritage in all of outer space.

Michelle Hanlon, welcome to On Point.

MICHELLE HANLON: Meghna, hi, thanks so much for having me here.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so we'll get to the moon in a second, but I have to start by asking what got you what made you fall in love with this field of space law?

HANLON: So Meghna, of course, I, like many children wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Right there with you.

HANLON: Of course, then calculus hit me right in the face. And I thought that's the end of that. And I went on to be a lawyer, a business lawyer for about 25 years and my children rekindled my interest in space. My son wanted to mine an asteroid and asked me if I could figure out the law for him.

And I took a career switch at the ripe old age of 50 and went back to law school to earn a specialized degree.

CHAKRABARTI: That is amazing. Maybe we should ask you about asteroids because we just brought back an asteroid sample, didn't we?

HANLON: Exactly. And so exciting to just think about the approaching a spacecraft that's been on another celestial body that we can't even basically see and opening it up and finding whatever.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And did you come up with a sort of a body of law for asteroid mining for your son?

HANLON: So we do, unfortunately, or fortunately, I should say, space is not the wild west. We do have law and there is a very, the foundational concept of the law is that space is for everyone. It belongs to all, it is the province of all humankind.

And so the question is not so much who does space belong to? Can you do it? But how do you make it fair? What you want to do if you mine an asteroid or mine the moon? How do you make it fair for everybody else on earth?

CHAKRABARTI: I have to say I admire how beautifully you refocused our conversation on the matter at hand before I keep asking you about you wanting to be an astronaut.

So back to the moon here, actually literally back to the moon for the United States. Can you first tell me Michelle, what do you think of this renewed sort of flurry of ambition? Not just from the United States, but from several other countries in terms of aiming for the moon not only as a sign of national prowess and pride, but as a place for potential future space missions and resources.

HANLON: I couldn't be more excited right now, Meghna. This is the renaissance of humanity yet again. We're standing on an incredible threshold. We're getting to the moon and it's not just to mine resources to make our phones work. It's a gateway to the rest of the universe.

On the moon, which has been our loyal neighbor for our entire existence, we're going to learn what it's like to live and work in space. We're going back to the moon to stay so that we can understand how we can access the rest of the wonderful space that we live in, that we've not been able to even begin to tap the resources of. And again, it's not even about diamonds.

It is about water, but it's really the opportunity that we can't even imagine, at this point. It's mind blowing what could be out there.

CHAKRABARTI: And tell me more about the significance of the fact that we're not just talking about the United States and Russia and a kind of Cold War race to the moon, which is what it was in the 1960s.

But that now we have China and India and also, of course, a whole slew of private corporations in the mix as well.

HANLON: Game changing. I want to be very clear, though. We're still in a race. This is just a very different race. Back in the '60s and '70s, it was out about prestige. As you said, go, come, the democracies do it better.

No, the communists do it better. We got to space first. We're really looking now at laying the foundation for the future. And when I say it's a race, there is prestige involved, of course. But because the law is unsettled, I'm not suggesting any one country or company is going to claim the moon as theirs alone, but what they do, the first movers are going to have a large say, a huge and substantive say in how we move forward, how we behave towards each other on the moon and elsewhere in space.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so we probably should get into what this unsettled body of law looks like right now because, quite frankly, I was even surprised to know that there was a treaty already in existence. Let alone perhaps other pieces of regulation or ideas that we could look to. Can you just name, we've got only just a couple of minutes before our first break, but give me the name of what you would think is the most important body of law or treaty regarding the moon right now.

HANLON: The outer space treaty ratified in 1967 is our Magna Carta of space law.

It is, it provides all of the foundational frameworks for all activities of countries in outer space. And what's really fascinating, and people don't realize, is there's actually an entire U.N. agency and office of outer space affairs. Which helps delegates of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meet three times a year to discuss space law and see how we can evolve it.

CHAKRABARTI: So can you give me just a quick headline on what the Outer Space Treaty asserts in terms of countries claims on different aspects of space?

HANLON: Article 2. No state may claim sovereignty over any place in outer space, over any celestial body, the moon, anywhere. Nobody, no state, no country, not China, not the U.S., not India can go up to the moon and plant the flag and say, this is ours.

CHAKRABARTI: And the Outer Space Treaty is still in effect?

HANLON: It is in effect and signed by all of the major spacefaring nations.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Has it been updated since 1967?

HANLON: That is the greatest question. No, it has not been. We have had a lot of what we call soft law resolutions.

It's been really hard to find agreement formal agreement. But we have all of these handshake agreements. Okay, we're all going to do this way. Sure. But it is time, not for an update so much, but for a new treaty to talk about how we're going to protect and share and rationally use the resources we find on the moon.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so when we come back a little later in the show, we'll talk about what a new agreement like that might look like. Today, we're taking this big picture view of humankind's next leap into space, which would be back to the moon, and what that means in terms of who would have the right to extract the resources that many people see the moon can uniquely provide.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Michelle, if you just hang on with me for a little bit, I want to make good on a promise that I gave listeners in the first segment of the show.

And that is, what's the answer to the question of what could be more valuable than a moon crater full of diamonds? The answer is Helium-3. All right what is Helium-3? Its proponents say that it could be the secret to clean nuclear power on Earth because it's a key element in a very specific fusion reaction.

Okay? So typically, when people or experiment researchers have tried to fuse helium. They create energy by fusing two substances called deuterium and tritium. But with the Helium-3 reaction, scientists would fuse deuterium and Helium-3. Or, in other words, Helium-3 with more Helium-3.

Gerald Kulcinski has spent decades studying this possibility.

GERALD KULCINSKI: The D-Helium-3 reaction produces about 30 times less neutrons than a DT reaction of the same power level. And that really reduces the radiation damage and activation problem by about a factor of 30. That's big. If we wanted to go to helium 3, there's essentially no neutrons. It would be a nuclear process with no nuclear waste. That’s really the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

CHAKRABARTI: Kulcinski is professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin and former director of the Fusion Technology Institute. He
estimates there are a million metric tons of Helium-3 on the moon. Which, he says, could be enough to power the earth for 1,000 years. That, of course, makes it virtually priceless:

KULCINSKI: Helium-3 on the moon is worth $4 billion per ton if used on the Earth to make energy. It's the most valuable thing in space. Even if you had piles of diamonds on the moon, that wouldn't be worthwhile to go get them.

CHAKRABARTI: To be clear: Nuclear power using Helium-3 fusion is NOT currently commercially available. There are no nuclear power plants today that use fusion of any kind. However there have been some promising experimental reactors that are using Helium-3. Kulcinski says the idea still has enormous hurdles to clear. Because helium-3 fusion reactors still haven’t produced more energy than it takes to simply run them. Thus far, a net loss of energy. That's the major hurdle we're talking about.

But nevertheless, researchers and big companies are confident that it could be a transformational technology. In May, Microsoft signed an agreement with the company Helion Energy. The goal is for Helion to plug into Washington state’s grid by 2028 and generate at least 50 megawatts of Helium-3 fusion power.

In terms of harvesting the actual Helium-3 from the moon, Gerald Kulcinski says we already know how. You heat up the moon’s soil, called regolith.

KULCINSKI: You heat it up to about 700 degrees centigrade by solar energy, and the Helium-3 comes out, and, and you can separate that. And, oh, by the way, for every ton of Helium-3 you get on the order of 10,000 tons of life support material: water, oxygen, nitrogen and so forth.

CHAKRABARTI: Kulcinski isn’t sure he’ll see a successful commercial Helium-3 nuclear fusion reactor in his lifetime. But he does think he’ll see countries and companies start using the moon’s water, oxygen and nitrogen. If and when countries begin mining Helium-3, Kulcinski he hopes they’ll collaborate.

KULCINSKI: A UN type of an organization, it probably wouldn't be the UN, but something like that would try to have the benefits of harvesting Helium-3 from the moon at least equitably spread out over the Earth. Not on a one-to-one basis, because somebody's going to have to pay a lot of money and a lot of effort to get there, and they should be rewarded for that. But some benefits should come to nations that can't go to the moon.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Gerald Kulcinski, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin and former director of the Fusion Technology Institute.

Now, Michelle, again, just to make it clear. This isn't yet a commercially viable technology, but the very fact that there seems to be at least this notion that Helium-3 could produce clean fusion, if I could put it that way, and its value is so high, you can understand why a lot of countries and companies are salivating at the chance to at least see if we can get Helium-3 off the moon.

But can you tell me what Helium-3 provides as an example in terms of what's missing from extant space law that would help guide those same countries and companies to figure out how that, how a fair mining process would happen.

HANLON: Of course, Meghna, when you think about it, what an exciting prospect.

And I think it thank goodness for dreamers and scientists who can make dreams come true like this. This is going to take a long time, though. And what we're talking about is this, we have this treaty, which states that no country can claim territory. So then the question becomes what happens if a country wants to mine?

You're claiming territory by setting up a mine, aren't you? And then we have another provision of that same treaty, this Magna Carta of our space law, which says everybody has free access to all areas of all celestial bodies. How are you going to have a mining operation if you're going to have other rovers and other countries traipsing through your operations?

The moon is a very delicate environment in that there's no gravity. And so that very regolith that we're hoping to extract all these resources from is very sharp like sandpaper, gritty, and there's no gravity to tamp it down. So if you go within a kilometer of another operating piece of machinery, you can do tremendous damage to it just because of the dust cloud that flies up from it.

And so there is nothing in the treaties in current law, which says, which tells us how we're going to, pay attention to each other. We do have, there's a lovely concept called due regard which, you know, to you, to non-lawyers, makes common sense, right? Just be respectful of your neighbor.

But in lawyer speak, it is a balancing test. So if you have a dispute on the moon, then you're going to go to court and the judge is going to say we're going to balance your activity against the other activity, and against the impairment against what alternatives you had. And then I call this the cha ching provision for lawyers.

We can argue about that for decades.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, I'm going to come back to that in a second about if there's a dispute on the moon because I have a lot of questions about that. But going back to the Outer Space Treaty that you mentioned and just to reiterate, it's the treaty that says no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon or any other celestial body.

Am I wrong in thinking, in remembering that, is that a non-binding treaty though?

HANLON: No, this is binding.

CHAKRABARTI: It is, actually?

HANLON: Yeah, it's considered now to be customary international law by many, which means that even if you haven't signed the treaty, then this is binding on you anyway.

And it's really the concept that the freedom of space, the freedom to do what you want in space, that space belongs to everybody. What's really interesting though, Meghna, and is when you think about treaties, somebody once said it's very easy for countries to agree on words. It's much, much more difficult for them to agree on how to interpret those words.

And so I would interpret Article II of the Outer Space Treaty to say a nation can't claim territory, it can't claim by sovereignty, but what about an individual or a company? Doesn't necessarily say they can't.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that, to me, that opens up possibly one of the most important questions or areas of analysis that we should go through, Michelle, because I just have no doubt that in the future private corporations are going to play an enormous role here, right in the development of space technologies, voyages, etc.

We already see that they are, right? Because NASA is not going back to the moon without the help of some very large companies, private corporations. And therefore, given what you said about that potential loophole in the Outer Space Treaty, does the 1979 Moon Agreement, which I just only recently learned about, cover that?

Because I think it talks about the moon, that no part of the moon will become the property of any government or non-governmental organization or non-governmental entity.

HANLON: Absolutely. The Moon Agreement does. It fills that gap very nicely. It doesn't, to be very clear, it doesn't bar you from mining. It just says you're going to do it pursuant to some rules that we're going to come up with later.

Of course, the Moon Agreement has only been ratified by 18 nations, and one of them, Saudi Arabia, is actually withdrawing from it as of January 2024. And it's not, it does not, it has not been signed by the United States, Russia, China. It's been signed by India, but not ratified. So although it is a binding treaty against those 17 nations that are still a part of it, it does not bind the United States, Russia, China, or India.

CHAKRABARTI: What I'm hearing you say, Michelle, is that there's a sore lack of legal guidance or binding agreements when it comes to potentially mining the moon.

HANLON: Absolutely. And what's important to remember, so the United States in 2015, President Obama signed a law that said, "Hey, we interpret Article II to say that we're not going to claim territory, but if you extract the resource.

And then once it's extracted from that celestial body, it's yours, you own it, you can eat it, you can buy it, you can sell it, you can build with it, you can do whatever you want with it." And that caused a lot of consternation throughout the international space law community that we're so big. And but it's common sense.

If we are going to expand beyond our earth, we're not going to take bricks and mortar with us to build our habitats. We're going to need to use that regolith. And so it has become that interpretation has been accepted by the 20, 29 now nations that have signed the Artemis Accords which are some guidelines and principles hoping to help fill in the gaps of that outer space treaty, and China has not objected to it either because China is going to need to use the regolith to build its habitats as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so really basic question here. How would you go about, I don't know how to put it, parceling off the moon, right? Because even just in what we've talked about already, there are different parts of the moon that I presume have different quote-unquote value when it comes to not only the resource, the resources that it has, water, Helium-3, that kind of thing.

Whether or not it gets sunlight for, I guess like the moon does rotate but there will be different parts of the moon that people or countries might want to use differently. How do we even begin to divide it up?

HANLON: I hate the concept of divide it up, right? That just feels, sorry, divisive.

That's a really hard question to answer. People think, "Oh, the moon is so big. It's the eighth continent." It is. It's very large. But as you noted, all of the resources we want are focused in these small pockets. I like to tell people, "Look, we just need to hold humanity together for the next 100 or so years."

Because we should be using the moon not to mine the moon of all of its resources, but to learn how to get out beyond the moon. So if we can keep the peace, because what do we fight about here on Earth? We fight about resources. If we can keep the peace and figure out that question on the moon and also protect parts of the moon. I don't want to look up and see a different moon because somebody has been mining the face of it.

And a lot of cultures have very strong bonds with the moon. It's looked like that for our entire existence. And so we really want to think, "Okay, how can we do this responsibly." And how can we make sure that countries that have, don't have accessibility to the moon right now, today, or in 2030 or in 2040, how they aren't quote-unquote, left behind.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I actually, it's, I absolutely encourage you to tell me when you don't like questions that I ask. It's not a problem with me because in fact, upon hearing you say that, I suddenly found that my question came from what I would say is the mental trap that most people, including treaty writers, might fall into, right?

That the examples that we unconsciously or unconsciously lean on are ones of the past. And in the past, there's been a way of thinking like this part belongs to you, this other part belongs to this other country. Look, colonialism is the perfect, people's Exhibit A on this.

But even with the, like the oceans, for example, we've got a hundred miles off the coast of every nation that is bound by ocean. That's that nation's sovereign territory over water, but then we have international waters after that. So there's a sense of ownership, at least over small portions of the ocean.

Now that raises a whole bunch of problems when it comes to people wanting to do seabed mining in the deep sea. But I just wonder, so if we're not going to think like that. On the flip side, Michelle, it sounds like a little bit of, forgive the terrible pun, but pie in the sky to think that we could come up with a really different framework for humanity to work together that doesn't lead to a sense of trying to divide up resources.

HANLON: So you're absolutely right, Meghna. The entirety of human evolution has been about exploitation, right? That's how we've advanced. That's how we evolved. That's, we've made our environment into what we can exist in comfortably. And it is going to be a very hard Change to remove that concept of exploitation.

Let's use the resources. Let's explore, but let's not use concepts like exploit. It's not, it shouldn't be mine, mine, mine. I hate to think about, oh, there's $4 trillion worth of Helium-3 on the moon. No there's a future for humanity on the moon. So we actually have for all mankind, we believe there's a very sensible place to start.

What do we all agree on here on earth? We all agree how important it is to protect cultural heritage on earth. We have heritage protection conventions. We have the World Heritage Convention, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Liberty Bell. These are things that belong to all of humanity.

And these are things that we recognize as human achievements. We recognize how important it is and how culture brings kinship. We look at each other, think back to, I know most of your listeners weren't alive for the Apollo 11 lunar landing, but 650 million people watched that. It brought humanity together.

This is the power of space. Sure. There are a lot of minerals we can exploit, but the power of space is to look back and remember, we did this together. And we can move forward together.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: So Michelle, I want to just be totally transparent and say, my heart is with you and your vision for the fundamental purpose of space travel and exploration, right?

The purity of a mission of goodness for all humankind and expanding our knowledge of the universe that can hopefully benefit all humankind. That's why Neil Armstrong said, "One small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind." That's the idea. But we're not just talking about exploration and scientific research here because we are talking about potential resources.

I've read other analysts who say this isn't like a space race. This is like a gold rush, really. It's at the beginning, the beginnings of a long term gold rush. And to me, that puts a cloud over the hopeful vision, right? Because anytime there has been a deep desire for resource extraction here on Earth, the gold rush is a great example.

The idea that we all agree on the preservation of human cultural heritage just goes out the window, right? People's entire cultures were destroyed by westward expansion in this country. To this day, when we blast the tops off mountains or dig gold pits in Africa that are deeper than a skyscraper in New York, we're doing it while knowingly destroying the cultural heritage of the people who live there.

So I just have this nagging doubt that we can all get together and say, "Nope, when it comes to the moon or other celestial bodies, human cultural preservation is going to come first." Because I'm not sure Elon Musk cares that people on Earth, cultures on Earth, have a long, millennia long relationship with the moon and don't want to see a different moon when they look up.

HANLON: Meghna, I will loan you my rose-tinted glasses any day of the week, of course.

CHAKRABARTI: Please, do I need them.

HANLON: Of course, and I think it was Neil Armstrong who said, "We will always have the technology. It's the human character that worries me." They're bad apples everywhere and we're not going to send only good people to space.

And right now, I will tell you that I have spoken and I'm very supportive of companies like Intuitive Machines and iSpace from Japan and SpaceIL in Israel who have designs on the moon and wanting to create an economy using lunar resources. And for the most part, they respect our mission and understand the importance of protecting that first blueprint.

There are going to be people, there are people on earth who don't care. Like you pointed out, it happens today, but we, that is why we need strong institutions. Yes, Elon Musk has the power of a large country, but there is something to be said for public opinion and institutional traditions and customs and by starting out, we can do it here from earth.

It's very easy. All we need is a resolution that says, "Hey, we're going to protect the Apollo and the Luna and the Chandrayaan and the Changa sites." And that's enough to create a mood, a different, to change that mood from exploitation to, "Oh, wait, there are things we need to think about protecting."

CHAKRABARTI: So let me needle a little further, Michelle, okay? Since I spontaneously threw an Elon Musk in there, I don't think we're adequately even addressing this question in our own near-earth orbit. Okay? Because here's why forget Starlink and Ukraine, that's a whole another political story.

But a couple of summers ago I was in Zion National Park, right? Which is also a night sky sanctuary, as well. And I got up in the middle of the night, looking at the spectacular Milky Way, and all of a sudden, I see 40, looks like at least 40 satellites, in a straight line, right? Cutting right across the sky.

I didn't know what it was. It looked really creepy and weird. I found out that it was Starlink, essentially, and that later on, reading more into it, that a lot of astronomers, et cetera, are saying it's ruining the night sky. But he could put those satellites up there. No problem. No one questioned it.

So if we're not even doing a good job regulating or coming to agreements about how private corporations can behave, or what they can put into orbit right around Earth, what gives you the optimism that we could come up with those agreements for the moon?

HANLON: So it's a balance. And I am so sorry to hear that.

I've never seen the Starlink train, and I'd actually be really excited, although probably not in the 'dark-skies park.' He did need to get a licensed by the FCC, which in turn had to get a license from the International Telecommunications Union. So this is something that's very regulated. And the balance here is what is the benefit his Starlink is bringing to earth.

And again, I agree with you. Let's leave Ukraine aside, but they are, they, I have a colleague who just took Starlink down into some tribes in the Amazon who now can actually use remote sensing data to see if poachers are encroaching on their native territory, on their indigenous lands. So there are tremendous benefits to satellites.

We have to figure this balance out. I am a part of a working group looking at dark skies and how we protect them for both cultural reasons and to protect the planet. Because if we can't see beyond our orbit, we're not going to see that deadly asteroid that's going to make us, send us back to the time of the dinosaurs. Everything is a balance.

And I think as we mature and evolve as humanity, we have to make sure we're listening to both sides of every story.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, no, I hear that. And so we're not going to solve that balance right now, but it's something, for what you said is something for us to take away as an important thing to think about who's involved in making those decisions so that we do achieve a balance is, are U. S. based communications regulators enough? No, I don't think so. So when it comes to the moon, we're probably going to have to have a lot more people at the table, so to speak. So that's something to take away.

But I want to also talk, Michelle, about things that we have done here on Earth and whether any of them are good examples of what to do or what not to do when it comes to deciding how to move forward with exploration on the lunar surface. So what about Antarctica? And I ask that because obviously, it's in the planet's south pole, no native human populations, temperatures regularly well below zero.

The sun doesn't really rise over the horizon for about six months out of the year. So Michelle, we spoke with Joanne Yao. And she says these extremes have not kept explorers away. She's a senior lecturer in international relations at Queen Mary University of London.

JOANNE YAO: Exploration and the scramble for Antarctica, if you will, didn't really start up until the last decade of the 19th century, where there was a call in one of the scientific societies in Europe saying this is the last unexplored piece of Earth.

And we need to go and explore it. So then that precipitated a lot of expeditions down to Antarctica. What they were doing along the way, of course, was planting flags and claiming pieces. The history of Antarctica is interesting that science was very much embroiled and tangled with conquest and colonialism.

CHAKRABARTI: Yao says during the Cold War, some countries started to get nervous about Antarctica because they didn't want the U. S. and the Soviet Union to compete over ownership or place nuclear weapons there.

YAO: So there was this kind of tipping point, I think, in the 1950s with the existing claimant countries all staking a claim and being a bit fearful that these two new superpowers would come in and make their own individual claims and upset the balance of power.

CHAKRABARTI: In 1959, 12 nations signed the Antarctic Treaty, which stipulated that Antarctica be used for peaceful purposes only, and that observations and research results from the continent should be exchanged and made freely available. But remember, Yao says this is not every country in the world working together.

YAO: The only countries that can engage with Antarctica and be part of the treaty are countries that have, and the term is conducted substantial scientific activity in Antarctica. So that was the gatekeeping device, that if you don't have the money or the resources to conduct substantial scientific activity in Antarctica, then you wouldn't be part of the political agreement.

CHAKRABARTI: To date, 56 nations have signed onto the Antarctic Treaty, but only 29 of them meet the Substantial Scientific Activity Benchmark and have any kind of decision-making power. Seven nations still have claims in Antarctica, even though the treaty freezes those claims. The countries are Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

Joanne Yao worries that the Antarctic Treaty is not the best model to use to help decide legal questions about the Moon and space exploration. Right now, I think my worst fear is we're going to be successful in colonizing the Moon and Mars, and then we're just going to export all of our inequalities and injustices from the Earth to the Moon and to Mars.

YAO: That in thinking of these places as utopian places where we can start again, we don't recognize that we're taking our baggage from Earth and we're just going to go and destroy another planet.

CHAKRABARTI: So she wonders if there's a way to frame outer space exploration without a colonial mindset. She says there are movements in domestic and international law to give legal personhood to aspects of nature, such as mountains and rivers.

YAO: A lot of attention has been given to a river in New Zealand called the Wanganui, which has been given legal personhood under New Zealand law, and it gets representatives from the Maori tribes to represent it, along with the New Zealand government to represent the river. But they see things from the perspective of the river, what does the river want, what does the river need, what is good for the river, and then gives the river sort of legal standing in courts of law, where somebody is dumping environmental pollution into the river, then they can sue those companies in the same way anybody else with legal standing might sue, given harms.

CHAKRABARTI: So Yao asks, what if we applied this kind of thinking to the moon?

YAO: Why can we just not accept that the moon is its own entity and to offer it a bit more respect than to say, "Let's divide it up, it's a piece of our property, right?"

YAO: And then we can think about balancing human needs, human interest, human scientific curiosity from the moon's perspective, what is good for the moon?

CHAKRABARTI: That's Joanne Yao, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. Michelle, what do you think? Are the Antarctic Treaties good, bad examples? Is there anything in them that you think we should, we could follow?

HANLON: Meghna, I don't think that they are a good example because again, it binds us to a terrestrial mindset.

And it's one thing to think about Antarctica. It's a very closed in area. We can get, reach it very easily. It has finite resources. Our high seas have finite resources. The moon has finite resources, but the rest of space is infinite. And so again, I talk about holding humanity together until we have the technology to reach those infinite resources.

And then we will have no reason to fight about anything anymore. And so the Antarctic treaty, you're not allowed to mine in Antarctica. And that is something that I don't think makes sense for the moon. Because we need to get to those resources, in order to merely survive.

There will be no reason to fight about anything anymore. Michelle, I desperately want that to be true. I just don't think humanity, we don't think we have it in us. I don't. I think we're going to fight about stuff wherever we are.

HANLON: Hopefully, we'll always find other stories. I think going back to the Polynesians when they left one island and rode off into the horizon because the brother was the chief now and they needed to find their own land.

At some point we'll have the technology where it's okay, I'm done with this one. You've got your community here. I'm going to go start another one on the next star over.

CHAKRABARTI: hen I thought I was going to be an astronaut, I was much more optimistic than I'm now, Michelle.

I think this job in journalism has pounded that optimism out of me. So I'm going to clinging to yours, I will be clinging to yours, Michelle. We've just got a couple more minutes left to go before we have to wrap up today. And I wonder. We're talking about what a lot of people might think is, are a set of questions that aren't the most urgent ones in the world right now, right?

Because of what is actually going on planet Earth. But nevertheless, this technology is being developed. The exploration is going to happen. It's better to be ready before than after disputes occur. So what are a couple of things that you think we should leave this conversation thinking about? What are the areas in which there's current activity regarding agreements?

For the moon or space, or areas that you'd like to see future activity.

HANLON: I think the most important thing, Meghna, is that people need to pay attention. These are decisions being made right now by a very small population of people on Earth about what's going to happen to the moon and who's going to, how we're going to mine it, who's going to get there and that's not fair and that's not right.

And there's nothing to stop, particularly in the United States, voters from having their say. We need everything that happens in space. Everything that we do on earth is affected by things that happen in space. So you need to call your congressman and your senator and tell them you're worried about orbital debris.

You don't want the skies are the heavens, blocked by our own garbage. We need to clean up our orbit so that we can actually get to the moon and build communities on the moon and beyond.

CHAKRABARTI: Michelle, can I just jump in here? Who are the small number of people or small groups that are most influential right now?

And how do we, or how do we find out who they are?

HANLON: So it's the policymakers from the governments of the United States, Russia, China, and India. And India really just got a full seat at the table. And these are policymakers who are working through the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, working through the Artemis Accords and making decisions.

And again, they're, I think, for the most part, they are good decisions, but I'm also, one of this very small group of people who is actually thinking about space. We need more people. We want to hear from people here in Oxford and in Louisiana and anywhere in South America about what they think. We had that wonderful concept of making them, giving the moon personhood.

What do people think about that? That shouldn't be decided by a bunch of governments that are not getting input from their voters. That should be decided by the people of earth.

CHAKRABARTI: At least for now. As long as we look up every night, we do see that beautiful gem hanging in our sky, don't we?

HANLON: Absolutely.

This program aired on September 25, 2023.


Headshot of Claire Donnelly

Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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