Who owns the moon? The question sounds preposterous, but a few weeks ago NASA stumbled into it by releasing a list of potential lunar landing and exploration sites for its upcoming Artemis missions. It turns out that some of those sites are also being considered by the Chinese space program for its ambitious lunar exploration program. Both countries envision the moon — and those sites — as possible locations for long-term settlements and resource exploitation.
Happily, there's little chance of lunar war in the near term; it's not even clear when either country will be ready to land humans on the moon. But as advancing technology and ambition enables countries and companies to seek out the most promising landing sites, plans will inevitably overlap. Without trust and a means to manage competing claims, the long-term human quest to explore and settle the moon could stall — or even devolve into conflict.
These are not new concerns. Even before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the US and its allies were worried that Earthly conflicts and nuclear weapons might soon migrate into space. The US and the Soviet Union initiated years of treaty negotiations and in 1967, what today is known as the Outer Space Treaty became effective.
Among other provisions, the treaty asserts that no country can claim sovereignty over any celestial body, including the moon, while preserving the right to the "exploration and use" of space for all of humanity. So far, 112 countries have ratified it, including China.
In the 1960s few policy makers worried about tension between the right to explore and "use" space, and prohibitions on claiming cosmic territory. Space seemed vast and the technology — if it existed — was too hard and too expensive to be widely deployed.
That state of affairs has been changing rapidly over the last two decades thanks to the development of low-cost private-sector rocket companies and the brisk expansion of China's space program. This year, SpaceX, alone, is launching a rocket to Earth orbit on a nearly weekly basis. In 2021, China's government-run space program and its burgeoning private space industry collectively marked 53 successful launches.
For now, the moon remains vacant. But that, too, will change as China, the US and their private companies pursue ambitions to extract water and other resources from the lunar surface. Doing so will require expensive infrastructure and human settlements that private companies and nation-states will be reluctant to fund if territory can't be occupied and resource ownership claimed. In the eyes of many, however, both of those activities are in conflict with the Outer Space Treaty.
In an effort to reconcile these perceived conflicts, NASA in 2020 introduced a set of guiding principles for exploring the moon. The Artemis Accords, as they're known, build upon the Outer Space Treaty. The accords require transparency, including notification of lunar activities and coordination to avoid harmful interference. When these principles are followed, they can be used to establish "safety zones" in areas where the activities of any country or company might create hazards.
In theory, these zones will serve to protect mission hardware, science and astronauts. For example, observations made during the Apollo missions demonstrated that lunar dust kicked up by rockets can be highly damaging to hardware already stationed on the moon. But in China, especially, some critics openly question whether the real intent behind safety zones is to make the kinds of territorial claims prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty.
Unfortunately, China isn't the only one to fear a lunar takeover by a foreign rival. In July, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed concern that China will declare sovereignty over the moon after landing on it. The basis for his fears was China's aggressive efforts to exert sovereignty over the South China Sea.
It won't be easy to build trust in space while trust on Earth is lacking. China won't relinquish territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region, and the US is unlikely to eliminate a longstanding provision of US law — known as the Wolf Amendment — that restricts NASA's ability to cooperate directly with China on space exploration.
Those are significant hurdles, but they don't have to obstruct an agreement on how to manage lunar competition. One good starting point is for spacefaring nations to narrowly refocus their concerns on preserving important space heritage sites on the moon, such as the Apollo XI landing site, the Soviet Union's Luna 2 probe (the first spacecraft to land on the moon), and China's Chang'e 4 (the first spacecraft to safely land on the far side of the moon).
Rather than enact protections (or safety zones) for individual planned missions, a pact could be made to extend respect — and protection — for sites of historic importance to all of humanity.
"It's a concept not of exclusion, but inclusion," explained Professor Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, in a recent phone call. "It's not 'Keep out, this is mine.' It's 'Hey, this belongs to all of us, let's protect it.'"
Such an agreement won't, in the short term, ensure that China and the US avoid competing for landing sites on the moon. But if the approach can be embraced, it will set an important precedent for future cooperation. "We need to take baby steps," said Hanlon, who strongly advocates for space heritage protection. In time, the law might just catch up to the technology and prevent a needlessly destructive space conflict.