Corporations Are Ready to Build Moon Villages, Our Laws Are Not

Moon community concepts are being developed by federal space agencies and private spaceflight companies. What legal, economic, and social frameworks should apply to these communities?

|
Sep 17 2018, 12:00pm

Image: European Space Agency

At the 2018 International Space Development (ISDC) meeting in May, Jeff Bezos—founder of Amazon and Blue Origin—laid out his vision for human expansion into the solar system.

Bezos attended the event to accept the Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award for Space Settlement Promotion, named for the visionary physicist who pioneered many human space exploration concepts. While there, Bezos expressed a comprehensive perspective on the future of spaceflight, including the idea that we need to “leave Earth to save it.”

At the same time, Bezos added a new piece to the puzzle: lunar settlement. This places him in the middle of a growing fascination with the Moon and the promise of a robust “cislunar economy.”

In his ISDC interview with space journalist Alan Boyle, Bezos said that the key to cislunar development is a transportation system lowering the cost of getting materials from here to there. “We’ve proposed something called Blue Moon,” Bezos announced. “We would build a cargo lander that would take five metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface and precision-land it in a soft, controlled way. And by the way, we’ll do that even if NASA doesn’t do it. We’ll do it eventually. But we could do it a lot faster if there were a partnership.”

NASA is planning a return to the Moon and a “gateway” space station in lunar orbit, while a number of groups, including the New York Space Alliance (NYSA), have begun to tout the benefits of a “cislunar economy.” The European Space Agency is also planning an international “Moon village.”

The Bezos statement, casual in its “by the way” tone, raises the question of the proper balance between public and private development of the solar system. Bezos has the resources to privately fund his own mission to the Moon and beyond, but is that what we want? Should the first lunar community be a company town?

Language is important in shaping new ideas, and I think we need a new term other than “cislunar” or “Earth/Moon system” to describe the unique relationship between Earth and its satellite. I will use the term “Terraluna” for this article.

This new name acknowledges the reality that the Earth and its very large satellite are intimately connected with one another and relatively close, in cosmic terms.

The proximity encourages people to think of the Moon as another continent or a suburb of the Earth. It may well become a habitat for some humans, and maybe even a lot of us, in the future. As is the case with so many other questions about opening up the solar system, though, there is not much of a plan, policy, or legal framework for doing it.

In the past, frontier landscapes often became home to “company towns.” These corporate communities might enjoy temporary wealth, but there were downsides to the arrangement, resulting from the centralization of power in company leadership.

Tycoons like railcar baron George Pullman, who built the town of Pullman, Illinois, in the 1880s, ruled model towns with paternalistic values. The remoteness of historic company towns was often used against laborers, who were forced into debt or substandard conditions because of a lack of nearby opportunities.

We might also ask if these commercial communities and institutions from the past hold any lessons for our present and future on the Moon. While close to Earth in cosmic terms—only about 238,000 miles—the lunar surface is still relatively remote. Could the same labor issues seen in Pullman play out in a company town on the Moon? It is certainly one possibility.

I spoke by phone with Sidney Nakahodo, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and cofounder of the New York Space Alliance. Nakahodo suggested that as humans begin to live in Terraluna, they will move beyond traditional economic and social structures, experimenting with new political systems.

As a historical precedent, he cited the example of the Mayflower Compact, signed by the original colonists who traveled across the Atlantic to the so-called New World in the early 17th century. While the English settlers remained loyal subjects of the Crown for some 150 years, eventually they rebelled and created a wholly new form of government. Rejecting the “Divine Right of Kings” to rule them, they embraced a representative model in which rights were lodged in the polity itself.

What legal framework will ultimately guide the development of Terraluna economy and society? At the moment, this is unclear. Imagine, for example, that ESA succeeds in establishing an international “lunar village” and Blue Origin builds a thriving commercial operation not far away. Imagine further that on the far side of the Moon, China creates a major staging area for deep space operations.

The only international law that could function as a starting point for answering this question is the Outer Space Treaty, signed by more than 100 nations in 1967. Assuming it remains in force, the treaty appears to bar any nation from claiming ownership of the Moon or parts of it, and attests that “states shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities.”

This appears to suggest that if a crime were committed in the Blue Origin territory of Terraluna, US law would be relevant, since it is an American company. However, European Union statutes might cover a similar breach in the proposed ESA village. This mimics the legal system onboard the International Space Station, in which astronauts are primarily under the jurisdiction of their own countries and the ISS modules are treated somewhat like embassies.

Similarly, economic growth and development might be regulated by a variety of legal frameworks. But history suggests that this patchwork of laws and regulations would prove frustrating, leading to new political and economic arrangements in Terraluna.

“I think the Moon will become a place for experimentation, not only economic, but also social and political,” Nakahodo said. “It could be an environment where we try out true direct democracy, for example. Or we might use artificial intelligence for governance.”

When I asked Nakahodo how much power a lunar settlement might cede to an AI, he said, “I wouldn’t want it to become an authoritarian system, but an AI with a lot of autonomy could be needed to augment human decision-making. There won’t be much margin for error on the Moon.”

In the meantime, Nakahodo’s NYSA is doing all it can to make the vision of a robust cislunar economy into a reality, and other voices are beginning to weigh in on the optimal path of development for Terraluna.

Read More: Engineers Want Gamers to Explore the Moon with a Remote-Controlled Nanobot

The Moon has been described as “Earth’s eighth continent,” venture investor, space philanthropist, and Space for Humanity founder Dylan Taylor told me. “In many ways, that is correct, but it does not answer the policy question: ‘What is the proper mix of public and private development of the Moon?’”

“As with all exploration on the Earth to date, settlement is likely to follow commerce,” he said. “As important as the Apollo Moon landings were in demonstrating the resolve of the human spirit, they did not lay the groundwork for sustainable commerce.”

While Taylor thinks that private enterprise will play a major role in Terraluna’s evolution, he said that should not preclude government engagement. NASA appears to agree, having awarded a contract to Blue Origin to work on a lunar lander, not unlike the system Bezos described at ISDC.

Long-time observers of the space movement tend to concur that the advent of NewSpace and several billionaires’ commitments to human expansion into the solar system is needed if this great adventure is going to achieve escape velocity. Many also applaud Bezos’ vision as a positive one, building as it does on O’Neill’s optimistic view of the human future.

However, we also need a global conversation about laws, ethics, governance, and many other elements of the Terraluna Moonscape because it will set a precedent for everything that follows if a migration beyond Earth begins.

There is still time for the citizens of Earth to have that critical conversation. The outcome could affect our descendants for centuries to come.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .