July 2019


Mining the Moon

By Ceridwen Dovey
Photo of Elon Musk

Elon Musk at the US National Press Club. © Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

The resources industry says it’s finders keepers in the new space race

Few of us remember to be grateful to the Moon. We are lucky to have it, though we still don’t know exactly how it was formed. Our planet could just as easily have ended up moonless, like our neighbours Venus and Mercury, or we could have been burdened like Mars with its small moons, Phobos and Deimos, their names meaning fear and dread.

Instead, we have a moon large enough to stabilise our planet as it spins on its axis, stopping Earth from wobbling too wildly or causing extreme changes in climate that would have made it impossible for life to evolve. Without the effect of the Moon’s gravity on the ocean – the daily occurrence of two high and two low tides – the primitive life forms that crawled from the sea onto land may not have crawled anywhere.

No matter where in the world we are, no matter which slice of history we inhabit, when we look at the full Moon we see something that has remained unchanged since our ancestors first gazed at it. Unlike Earth’s surface, which is in constant flux due to the effects of the atmosphere, changing weather patterns, shifting continents and moving water, the Moon’s features have remained mostly the same for more than four billion years.

Fifty years ago this month, Neil Armstrong took his “small step” onto the Moon. In the anniversary hullaballoo, there’s been nostalgia for the heroics of the Apollo 11 astronauts, as well as eager anticipation of a new golden age of space commercialisation, as governments across the world hand over the keys to the cosmos to private enterprise.

If the talk happens to turn serious – towards international space law, or the ethics of corporations or rich nations prospecting for off-Earth minerals – many people tune out, assuming that anything to do with outer space is speculative, eons away from becoming a reality and not yet worthy of concern. Those with the most to gain from turning space into a realm of “finders keepers” hope that the public remains blind to the war currently being waged between competing visions for space. And the first site for this conflict? The Moon.

The recent discovery of water-ice on the Moon was the starting gun going off for a new space race. The presence of lunar water-ice was initially theorised after a 1998 NASA mission, but it wasn’t until 2008, when the Indian Space Research Organisation crashed a probe into the lunar south pole’s Shackleton Crater, that the data suggested this was highly likely. NASA gathered further evidence in 2009, and last year, it finally confirmed there are significant ice deposits on the Moon, mostly in permanently shadowed craters at the poles.

Suddenly, interest in Moon exploration, mining and settlement was revived. Water means the possibility of human habitation, and it can also be split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel. A permanent Moon base became the first step in any plans to extract resources or launch missions elsewhere, especially to Mars.

All the major spacefaring nations now have designs on returning to the Moon. In January, China landed the first probe on the far side, and is planning more missions to collect data on resources. The United States, India, Russia, Europe, South Korea and Japan will send up robotic spacecraft in the next few years, and some are also gearing up for crewed Moon missions: NASA is ambitiously aiming for 2024; the European Space Agency and China National Space Administration say they’ll establish a joint Moon Village sometime in the 2020s (China plans to build its own lunar base by 2030, too).

Also in the mix, for the first time, are private companies. This is partly the result of a move by (Western) space agencies to form public–private partnerships to commercialise space activities and reduce costs. NASA has authorised nine American companies to bid on commercial payload deliveries to the Moon over the next decade. Japanese company ispace wants to mine the Moon and establish a settlement named Moon Valley as a base from which to mine asteroid belts. (Its tagline? “The moon is your staging ground for your next-­level business.”) An American company called OffWorld plans to establish robot workforces to enable mining and manufacturing both “on and offworld”. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated that the global space industry – currently worth around US$350 billion – will be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040.

These new space-mining corporations are keen to get in early on what they see as an emerging market of untold riches. Goldman Sachs Research has predicted that the world’s first trillionaire will make their fortune mining asteroids. On the Moon, water-ice is not the only potentially lucrative resource. It’s believed there are also rare-earth metals such as yttrium, samarium and lanthanum, all used in modern electronics, as well as platinum-­group metals, and possible future energy sources like Helium-3. The current buzz phrase is “in situ resource utilisation”, which means rather than bringing lunar resources back to Earth they would instead be used on the Moon to enable settlement and onward journeys, including forays to resource-rich asteroid belts.

Silicon Valley is eyeing all of this greedily, and tech titans have funded several space start-ups. In May, spaceflight company Blue Origin (owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) unveiled its lunar lander. Moon Express (a company that has attracted major investment from Paypal co-creator and Trump backer Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund) plans to bring back commercially owned lunar resource samples by 2020. And then, of course, there’s Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.

Recently in The Monthly, Tim Winton lamented the “quarry mentality” that leads to short-sighted decisions on Earth, such as the proposal to establish a beachhead for mining operations within Western Australia’s World Heritage–listed Ningaloo Marine Park. “Like all resource booms, it will pass,” he wrote. “Its benefits are temporary, and they come at a very high cost, because their negative consequences will endure forever.”

Should we be guided by a similar mentality when it comes to deciding the future of the Moon?

“Water is the oil of the solar system,” Moon Express’s website reads, “and the Moon will become a gas station in the sky.”

Space commerce boosters often describe space as the new Wild West, enthusiastically comparing the Moon boom to gold rushes of times past, with little awareness that this is not the most inspiring analogy for those who are aware of the social and environmental harm – and economic inequalities – caused by resource grabs on Earth.

The trouble is, when it comes to mining the Moon, the pro-mining camp likes to claim that they are the ones who will save the Earth.

Let’s take another look at Moon Express’s careful wording on its website. Their mission, they say, is to return to the Moon and unlock “its mysteries and resources for the benefit of humanity”. They describe the Moon as “Earth’s 8th continent, a new frontier” – a clever phrase to make the idea of mining it less shocking. If the Moon is seen as an extension of Earth, it follows that it doesn’t deserve special treatment by being exempted from having its resources extracted. “Expanding Earth’s economic and social sphere to the Moon is our first step in securing our future,” the website continues. “Not long from now a new generation will look up and see lights on the Moon, and know that they are part of a multi-world species.”

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, promotes his company by saying, “We can truly bring positive change to life on Earth.” Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin believes we must go to space so that we don’t go to war with each other on Earth over dwindling resources. The slogan of a popular video game, Offworld Trading Company, where players compete to dominate new resource markets on Mars, is: “Save Humanity. Turn a Profit. Preferably Both”, which is the idealised NewSpace motto in a nutshell.

It’s powerful, rousing stuff. Life on Earth has certainly been enhanced by some space innovations, including GPS, weather forecasting and wi-fi (most of them the product of government-funded research). There would be genuine advantages from other space dreams, such as continuous solar power beamed from on high. One large metallic asteroid supposedly holds enough quantities of certain metals to sustain human use on Earth for millions of years (though one wonders what havoc this would wreak on Earth’s metal markets).

Those who propose mining space resources describe them as “near infinite”, and say that once we’re released from the prison of resource scarcity, world peace will automatically ensue. But in a 2014 New Republic article, Rachel Riederer called out these would-be space miners for thinking we’d be hoodwinked into believing that a sky “full of infinite riches and abundance” creates peace on Earth. “Why wouldn’t riches from the heavens cause conflicts and problems?” she writes. “Their vulgar terrestrial cousins always have.”

It seems dangerously naive to believe that, when space exploration ramps up, we’ll be our best selves out there. It’s an entrenched “myth” that “when we go into space, we will all magically become nice”, science writer Martin Robbins has observed. Margaret Weitekamp, curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, points out that there has “always been this sense that space is aspirational, perfecting, different. But it’s an extension of who we are on the ground, run through this lens of great expense and great danger.” Another way to make sense of the humanitarian spin on private space ventures is to understand that these start-ups are simply exhibiting signs of the same weird mix of “conflicting pressures”, which The New Yorker’s George Packer describes as driving Silicon Valley’s ventures on Earth: “work ethic, status consciousness, idealism, and greed”. It’s business as usual; it just happens to be in space.

The American climate change activist Bill McKibben thinks it’s nuts to spend time or resources on space. “The least hospitable square inch of Earth is 10 times more hospitable than the most hospitable corner of the rest of the galaxy,” McKibben says. “[ T ]hat we’re going elsewhere in order to have a pristine Earth is absurd. It’s more likely that the … idea of an exit gives us permission to wreck this place.” (In the TV series The First, about a Mars mission, protesters outside the rocket-launch facility chant, “Earth, not space! That’s how we save the human race!”) Other commentators, however, counter that investing in space science and technologies does not equate to giving up on Earth, and that those innovations could well improve life as we know it in ways we can’t always predict.

Until now, there’s been hardly any consideration of the space environment as something worth protecting. This is partly due to the unknown environmental effects of mass space tourism, rocket launches or Moon mining. It’s also the result, writes Australian space archaeologist Alice Gorman, author of Dr Spacejunk vs the Universe, of the general tendency to see space “as a resource to be exploited [rather] than an environment to be managed”. She has called for the establishment of “international environmental impact assessments” to be required for “all proposed space projects”.

There’s already evidence that rocket plumes may deplete ozone, and that vaporised space debris could affect the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere. Hydrazine fuel, which is often released unburned in the early stages of lift-off, is known to cause diseases in people living near rocket launch sites.

Worse, nuclear power is once more being touted as the only viable option for Moon missions. Last year, NASA and the US Department of Energy tested a nuclear fission reactor prototype, called KRUSTY (the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology), as a power source for long-duration lunar missions. KRUSTY, they announced, is “the first step towards truly astounding space fission capabilities”, heralding a new era of supposedly “safe” and “efficient” nuclear-powered space exploration. (The Soviets have sent more than 40 nuclear reactors into space over the past half century.)

Historically, many prospective space “colonists” have been untroubled by the risk of contaminating the Moon’s environment. Marshall T. Savage, a space settlement fanatic whose book about “colonizing the galaxy in eight easy steps” included an introduction by science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke, wrote the following in a 1995 Space Governance article:

We can’t really mess up the Moon, either by mining it or building nuclear power plants. We can ruthlessly strip mine the surface of the Moon for centuries and it will be hard to tell we’ve even been there. The same is true of atomic power. We could wage unlimited nuclear warfare on the surface of the Moon, and be hard pressed after the dust had settled to tell anything had happened.

He goes on to make fun of future environmentalists:

No doubt, lunar prospectors will eventually be confronted by the “Society for the Preservation of Pristine Regolith” … to set aside some tens of thousands of acres of “preserve” dedicated to protecting the unsullied natural landscape of the Moon.

But he’s wrong: we can mess up the Moon. Its “surface boundary exosphere” – now recognised as a very fragile, thin atmosphere – is vulnerable to being altered. NASA has acknowledged that “irreversible pollution of the lunar atmosphere is a real possibility”. Philip
Metzger, an American planetary scientist, says that with “many, many landings on the Moon, eventually you’ll put so much [exhaust] gas into that environment that the atmosphere is no longer a collision-less atmosphere”, in which the constituent gas molecules never collide with one another. “Then it becomes a layered atmosphere. Once that happens, suddenly it takes a very long time for all that gas to escape back to space, hundreds of years.”

One environmental risk all stakeholders agree on is that posed by space debris. There’s already about 5000 satellites in orbit around Earth, of which roughly 2000 are operational, plus hundreds of millions of tiny pieces of debris. Ninety-five per cent of the stuff in low-Earth orbit is classified as “space junk”. More space debris makes accessing space costlier in terms of loss of equipment (and possibly of human lives). There’s also the risk of the Kessler effect: a cascade of collisions, to the point where the most useful orbital slots become permanently clogged.

This nightmare scenario isn’t accepted as a definite outcome, however, and even if it were, it probably wouldn’t prevent abuse of the global commons of space. It’s hard to impart a sense of urgency because we can’t see this debris in our daily lives. “We are in the process of messing up space, and most people don’t realise it because we can’t see it the way we can see fish kills, algal blooms or acid rain,” Michael Krepon, an expert on nuclear and space issues, said in 2015. Maybe we’ll understand only when it’s too late, “when we can’t get our satellite television and our telecommunications … when we get knocked back to the 1950s”.

It may seem a bit dry and abstract at first, but it’s in the nitty-gritty of international space law that the current clashes over space are rooted. There are five multilateral United Nations treaties governing space, most importantly the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), often described as the Magna Carta of outer space. The OST has been ratified by 109 states, including all the major spacefaring nations. It defines outer space as a global commons, the province of all humanity, free to be used and explored “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”, “on a basis of equality” and only for “peaceful purposes”.

A few contemporary commentators regard this language cynically. They point out these beautiful words were written during the Cold War, when the development of space technology was driven by the military ambitions of competing superpowers. Others, however, see the OST as an act of foresight, during a time of conflict, that there’d be more to lose for everyone in not establishing binding principles. The language was kept intentionally vague, to encourage skittish adversaries to sign.

Article II of the OST has become the major sticking point in the new space race. It forbids “national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”. No nation can make a territorial claim on the Moon or on any other celestial bodies, such as asteroids.

Since only nation-states were going to space then, there was no explicit ban of appropriation by private enterprise. Yet Steven Freeland, a professor specialising in space law at Western Sydney University and Australia’s representative to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), says discussions at the time of the OST negotiations clearly show that the states parties, including the US, were “of the opinion that Article II prohibited both public and private appropriation”. When president Lyndon B. Johnson asked the US Senate to ratify the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, he recalled an address he’d made to the UN a few years earlier: “We of the United States do not acknowledge that there are landlords of outer space who can presume to bargain with the nations of the Earth on the price of access to this domain.”

Yet this perceived legal uncertainty is the loophole that commercial companies are now exploiting. They’ve actively lobbied for an interpretation of OST Article II in the domestic space law of certain countries, to allow for private ownership of resources extracted from the Moon or other celestial bodies. They argue that, because the OST declares that all humans are free to “use” space, companies can exercise this right by mining anywhere they like. They won’t claim ownership of the land itself, but they will claim ownership of the resources they mine there.

They’ve already had a major win in this regard. The space industry lobby in America put pressure on members of Congress to reinterpret America’s obligations under international space law, to become more “business friendly”. The outcome was the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed into law by president Obama. Since then, companies owned by US citizens have been given the right to claim ownership of any resources that they mine off-Earth, as well as the right to sell them.

This was an incredibly controversial decision. It was rapturously welcomed by those set to benefit from it, for instance, Eric C. Anderson, then co-chairman of the now-defunct asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources. “This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” he said. Gbenga Oduntan, a scholar of international law, criticised the Act as “the most significant salvo … fired in the ideological battle over ownership of the cosmos”.

Further emboldened by the Trump administration, the “commercial [space] industry is becoming far more aggressive in how it lobbies for its own interests” in the US, Freeland says. There have been Acts recently proposed to enable a corporate space culture of “permissionless innovation”, with little regulatory oversight. In March, Republican senator Ted Cruz reintroduced one of them – the Space Frontier Act.

In a 2017 speech, President Trump’s space law adviser Scott Pace said, “It bears repeating: outer space is not a ‘global commons’, not the ‘common heritage of mankind’, not ‘res communis’, nor is it a public good.” Australian space lawyer Donna Lawler says this “disingenuous” interpretation “ignores the foundations of space law in the ancient doctrine of res communis, where everyone has a stake, preferring instead a narrative that space is a res nullius, belongs to no one and is consequently there for the taking.”

Even if you accept the US government’s interpretation of Article II – that space resources, but not the territory on which they’re located, can be owned – what happens if someone mines an asteroid out of existence, which is an act of outright appropriation? The Law of the Sea Treaty is often invoked as an analogy by the pro-mining camp to justify their interpretation of space resources: nobody owns international waters, but everyone has the right to fish there. But this misses the point that fish – in theory – can replenish their populations. Space resources, once extracted, are gone forever.

Should the public trust that companies mining in space will do the right thing? We’re still uncovering the full extent of terrestrial mining companies’ cover-ups. For instance, in-house scientists at Exxon – now Exxon-Mobil, one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world – knew long ago that burning fossil fuels was responsible for global warming, but they actively buried those findings and discredited climate change science for decades.

We live in a world where “metanational” companies can accrue and exercise more wealth and power than traditional nation-states. Silicon Valley is believed to be becoming more powerful than not only Wall Street but also the US government. “The world is entering an era in which the most powerful law is not that of sovereignty but that of supply and demand,” international relations specialist Parag Khanna wrote in Foreign Policy in 2016. These new “metacosmic” space start-ups want to include the Moon and other celestial bodies in that chain. In the process, these companies will cement their status as “outerspatial” superpowers.

Branson and many of the other space billionaires like to reassure the masses that they’re “democratising” space: just as plane travel started out for the wealthy and gradually became cheaper, so too with space travel. Yet this conveniently overlooks the fact that railroads, airlines and now space industries have all been heavily subsidised by taxpayers. “When we take a step back and notice that private corporations are often even less accountable than governments, then it seems mistaken to say these decisions have been democratised,” Ryan Jenkins, an emerging sciences ethicist at California Polytechnic State University, says. “They’ve merely been privatised.”

In 2017, Luxembourg – already a corporate tax haven, complicit in international investor tax avoidance and evasion – followed America’s lead and passed a space-resources law that allows companies to claim resources they extract from space as private property. Guardian journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian recounted a chilling comment from an American space executive: “We just want to work with a government who won’t get in the way.” Companies anywhere in the world can stake resource claims in space under this new law; the only requirement is that they have an office – not even headquarters – in Luxembourg.

This sets a murky precedent of “regulatory forum-shopping”, where companies choose to incorporate in states where they’ll be most leniently supervised. This is similar to the contentious merchant ship practice of flying a “flag of convenience”, whereby a ship’s owner registers the ship in a foreign country with less stringent labour and environmental laws or oversight. Much illegal overfishing, for instance, is done by these vessels.

The same has already happened in space. In 2018, a Silicon Valley start-up called Swarm Technologies illegally launched four miniature satellites known as CubeSats into space from India. They’d been refused launch permission in the US due to safety concerns over whether the satellites could be tracked once in orbit. Fined US$900,000 by the US Federal Communications Commission, the company was subsequently given permission to start communicating with its satellites, and launched more CubeSats as part of a payload on a SpaceX rocket last November. In January, the company raised $25 million in venture capital. This was textbook Silicon Valley behaviour. Move fast and break things. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

Space start-ups that are prepared – unlike Swarm Technologies – to play by the rules are nonetheless still proposing to launch their own swarms of hundreds or thousands of small satellites. Even at a low failure rate, this would contribute significantly to space debris, and is proof that commercial actors can be ruthless in their pursuit of first-mover advantages. SpaceX recently launched 60 unusually bright satellites into low-Earth orbit – part of the company’s Starlink satellite internet venture, which aims to have up to 12,000 in orbit eventually. Astronomers around the world were horrified. The UK’s Royal Astronomical Society strongly criticised this decision, saying it will “compromise astronomical research” due to light pollution, and asking why there had been zero consultation with the scientific community before launch. SpaceX still refuses to provide detailed information about Starlink’s specifications.

After the Americans landed on the Moon in 1969, there was a growing sense in the international community that the Outer Space Treaty did not go far enough towards establishing rules of lunar engagement.

A new treaty was proposed, which came to be called the Moon Agreement. This received unanimous approval from the UN General Assembly, and opened for signature in 1979. In stark contrast to the 1967 OST, however, the Moon Agreement has only 18 states parties to the treaty, of which one is Australia (India and France have signed but not ratified the treaty). None of the spacefaring nations with a crewed space program would sign it.

What had changed?

The Moon Agreement reaffirms many of the same general principles as the OST: that the Moon is the “province of all mankind”, to be used and explored only for peaceful purposes.

But in Article 11, the Moon Agreement goes a step further. It states that the Moon and its natural resources are the “common heritage of mankind”. These two terms – “province of all mankind” and “common heritage of mankind” – might sound interchangeable, but as Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law, has explained, they mean very different things. Province of mankind affirms that space is for the use and exploration of all humans (gender-biased language notwithstanding). Common heritage of mankind is a term that’s yet to be clearly defined, but suggests that the Moon is the repository of many varied forms of human heritage, not just economic or instrumental but also historical, religious, cosmological, cultural and scientific – all of which must be taken into account in deciding what can be done there. “This was the first source of controversy in the Moon Agreement,” says Gabrynowicz.

The next controversy was that, while in theory the Moon Agreement allows for the use and exploration of the Moon, the conditions on this use (and any proposed mineral extraction) are stringent.

The Moon Agreement calls for the states parties to come together and establish a more detailed international governance regime once the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon is “about to become feasible”. Consideration must be given to the environmental risks of exploiting off-Earth resources, and also to intergenerational equity. Most significantly, there must be mandatory and “equitable sharing … in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries … shall be given special consideration”.

“The [ Moon Agreement] exposed a whole lot of ideological differences between the haves and the have-nots,” says Steven Freeland. In spite of the rhetoric of us being comrades on Spaceship Earth, when it really came down to it, the wealthy, spacefaring nations were not prepared to contemplate the possibility of sharing the financial or other benefits of space-resource prospecting with poorer nations. Those nations, by the late 1970s, had embraced the concept of the New International Economic Order, a restructuring of the global economy to give developing nations more equal participation. They weren’t keen to let rich nations take whatever they wanted from space without proper oversight.

It’s a little-known fact that the US very nearly became a party to the Moon Agreement. It had signed, and the Senate was preparing to ratify the agreement, when certain radically libertarian groups – among them the L5 Society – mobilised to stop this from happening. The L5 Society, like many in the current-day space industry, was inspired by the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill’s dreams of space settlement. It fiercely opposed any bans on private ownership in space, and saw the Moon Agreement as akin to cosmic communism.

Australia’s ratifying of the Moon Agreement is also commonly misunderstood. Australia’s concern wasn’t so much to do with divvying up space resources; rather, it signed up to support the principles of non-­nuclear proliferation. The Moon Agreement put in place even stronger prohibitions against nuclear weapons in space and on the Moon than the Outer Space Treaty had done, and Australia’s representatives to the UN understood that these were security and arms control treaties more than space treaties.

Kerrie Dougherty, former curator of space history at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, says it’s often forgotten that Australia held the chair of the UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee for more than 30 years, and was “therefore influential in the development of many aspects of the space regime that is governed by the various UN treaties”. Now that the Australian Space Agency has been established, Dougherty believes we’re in a strong position to play mediator once again.

As the only spacefaring nation to be a party to the Moon Agreement, and now with our own fledging space agency, Australia faces a reckoning with its future in space.

When the Australian Space Agency was established last year, many celebrated that it gave Australia a seat at the global space industry table. Since then, those who strongly support the growth of local space commerce have been hinting – rather loudly – that it might be time for Australia to consider withdrawing from the Moon Agreement.

They complain that it’s slowing them down, not letting them get a big enough slice of the space revenue pie. William Barrett, of the Space Industry Association of Australia, said at a recent discussion of the Moon Agreement hosted by the association: “The train is moving very quickly for the space industry here, and we’re concerned that developing a regime through the UN is not going to be a fast process. People in industry want to know: can I protect my assets? And I’m not sure how long they’re prepared to wait for an answer on that.”

However, when Alexandra Seneta, the Australian Space Agency’s executive director of regulation and international obligations, was asked at the same event if Australia might consider withdrawing from the Moon Agreement, she responded emphatically. “No. These treaties are black-letter international law. We are committed to multilateralism, not unilateralism, when it comes to space.” Along with Freeland, Seneta represents Australia at meetings of UN COPUOS. The Moon Agreement, in her view, “expresses the desire to prevent the Moon from becoming an area of international conflict”.

Many of the most passionate advocates for privatising space believe privatisation is a way to transform what has been mostly a military domain, governed by secrecy, into a place of commerce and free trade. Christopher Johnson, an adviser in space law for the Secure World Foundation (an American-­based NGO that promotes the peaceful and sustainable use of space), is in this camp. “The more you have commercial actors entering the space domain, it goes from looking like a potential battlefield and it starts looking like the high street, the trading floor,” he says. “My hope is that states will see the emerging commercial space infrastructure and say, this isn’t a purely military domain anymore, we have to restrain ourselves.”

Others, however, believe just as passionately that allowing commercial operators to undermine the principles of non-appropriation that are encoded within international space law is a sure-fire way to hasten global conflict in space. Nikki Coleman, an Australian space and military ethicist, returned last year from the UN Institute for Disarmament Research’s Space Security Conference in Geneva feeling concerned at “the glacial pace at which we make and change laws regarding space” compared with the “breakneck pace at which commercial groups are now entering space”.

Bruce Gagnon, an American activist who has rallied for social justice and peace in space for almost 30 years, likes to point to history as a cautionary tale. Once the European powers had sent their sailing ships to the New World in search of resources in the 15th and 16th centuries, they promptly went to war with one another to defend those shipping lanes and territories.

In 1997, the US Space Command (disbanded in 2002 but now, under President Trump’s directive and pending Congressional approval, to be re-established with full responsibilities for space-warfighting) laid out this exact future for space in their “Vision for 2020”:

Historically, military forces have evolved to protect national interests and investment – both military and economic. During the rise of sea commerce, nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests. During the westward expansion of the continental United States, military outposts and the cavalry emerged to protect our wagon trains, settlements, and railroads … Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium.

“There is no separating the militarisation, weaponisation and privatisation of space,” says Gagnon, who in 1992 founded the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. “It’s a seamless web.” Trump’s proposed US Space Command will become “the military arm of space privatisation to control the space shipping lanes of the future”.

The lunar poles are more advantageous than other sites, so right from the start there’ll be rivalrous claims to prospect there. As an infographic on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website puts it blithely, “[ U ]ntil we get there and fight it out, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Many people within the wider Australian space community believe, like Dougherty, that Australia should use its position as a party to the Moon Agreement (and as a broker between the US and China) to play a leadership role in restarting this crucially important global conversation about space governance and security.

There is a related, though more unusual, idea for what Australia might do next, and it takes its inspiration from the past. One weekend in 1989, prime minister Bob Hawke was appalled to discover that parties to the Antarctic Treaty were about to endorse regulated mining and drilling in Antarctica. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he recalled in a 2016 interview. “Here was the last pristine continent … I thought, No bloody way.” He set off on an urgent mission to France, where he convinced prime minister Michel Rocard to join him in opposing Antarctic mining. Soon, they’d drummed up enough support from small European countries for the proposed mining convention to collapse.

In its place, in 1991, the Madrid Protocol was established, and it came into force in 1998. This declared Antarctica to be a “natural reserve” (with peaceful scientific zones), and free from all mineral extraction for at least a period of 50 years. Significant for the Moon parallel is the fact that both Australia and France rejected the argument put forward by other states that it was possible to exploit mineral resources and protect the Antarctic environment if regulatory instruments were in place.

Annie Handmer, a scholar of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, has studied both the Antarctic Treaty System and the outer space treaties. She believes Australia’s stellar track record using science diplomacy in Antarctica is something it should draw from as a global leader in space diplomacy. Treaties need to be “cherished and nurtured” to be effective. In Antarctica, she says, Australia has done exactly that, by being a “good citizen”: collaborating on scientific research, meeting continually with other treaty partners to strengthen social and political ties, reinforcing the ethical principles encoded in the treaties.

When it comes to space, Handmer thinks Australia should not spend “diplomatic capital on signing business deals and touting start-ups”. Instead, she’d like our national space strategy to “prioritise a peaceful future ahead of profit”. Once any existing norms of customary international law are eroded (for example, by allowing private ownership of natural resources on the Moon), Handmer warns “they’re very hard to get back”.

Behind all these decisions is the most fundamental question: who does Australia want to be in space?

A visionary way forward for Australia could be to do the same thing for the Moon as we’ve done for Antarctica: buy it some more time as a peaceful scientific zone, free of the spectre of being haphazardly mined for profit or becoming yet another warfighting domain. British philosopher Bertrand Russell recommended this approach on July 15, 1969, just a few days before Apollo 11 touched down. “[K]eep away from the moon,” he counselled. “I should wish to see a little more wisdom in the conduct of affairs on Earth before we extend our strident and deadly disputes to other planets.”

In centuries past, when the Moon burned much brighter in the night sky than it does in light-polluted modern cities, it was thought to be two-faced, to have a dual personality. It could be welcoming and serene, or it could be the harbinger of lunacy and mayhem. The Earth has two faces to show to the Moon, too. Which one will we choose when the time comes?

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

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Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

In This Issue

The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree

The highway construction causing irredeemable cultural and environmental damage

Image of Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum: A true journalistic believer

Celebrating the contribution of an Australian media legend

Image from 'Never Look Away'

Art life: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Never Look Away’ and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’

By barely disguising an account of the life of Gerhard Richter, the German director fails the artist and filmgoers


Scott Morrison’s quiet Australians

Just how silent does the PM want Australians to be?

More in The Monthly Essays

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash’s to Ash’s

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

Online latest

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation

A woman rides her bike past the Australian flag, the Indigenous flag and the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, Canberra, October 13, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Beyond the Voice referendum

Looking towards the next 65,000 years

View of the High Court of Australia. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Guarding the power of the court in our democracy

The hidden forces agitating at highest levels to undermine judicial independence