Who Owns the Moon? The Race For Lunar Real Estate Is An Impending Ethical Nightmare

More missions to the Moon mean more chances for values, cultures, and priorities to collide.

A few weeks before he died, President William G. Harding toured Yellowstone National Park. He said bluntly, “Commercialism will never be tolerated here as long as I have the power to prevent it.” The U.S. National Park system exists, in part, to protect some of our country’s most pristine wilderness from being destroyed by ventures like construction, mining, and logging.

While we’ve been able to create National Parks here in the U.S., nobody has the legal right to do that on the Moon. So what happens to the once-pristine Moon when the space miners show up?

Along with private missions like the recent Intuitive Machines’ lander IM-1, several countries’ space agencies all have their eyes on the same real estate around the Moon’s south pole, where water ice may lie waiting in permanently shadowed craters. Until recently, debates about what should and shouldn’t happen on the Moon have been abstract. Only one country’s space agency had ever sent humans to the Moon, and they didn’t stay long. That’s on the brink of changing. The next decade may see the once-pristine lunar landscape dotted with bases and riddled with mines, all jostling for space (and bandwidth) with telescopes and other scientific exploration. But is the lunar environment worth preserving, for science or in its own right, and who gets to decide?

There’s no life on the Moon, but the scenery is breathtaking (astronaut Harrison Schmitt for scale).


Who owns the Moon?

A recent (failed) mission to land cremated human remains on the Moon raised a high-profile example of the kind of ethical issues space ethicists say we should be considering. Astrobotic’s Peregrine One lander was scheduled to deliver the cremated remains of Gene Roddenberry and several members of the original Star Trek cast, and others to the Moon.

The Navajo Nation formally protested the mission’s launch; in Navajo beliefs, the Moon is a sacred object, and placing human remains there would be a desecration. In the end, a fuel leak forced the mission to return to Earth, where it ended in a fiery plunge into the upper atmosphere, but it drew attention to a larger debate about who gets to decide — for everyone — how we as a species relate to the Moon now.

“Every culture on Earth has conceptions about the Moon,” Santa Clara University space ethicist Brian Green tells Inverse. “There are lots of groups on Earth who have thoughts on how the Moon should be treated. This is why we need to have a larger conversation.”

Part of the unfolding discussion centers on what, if anything, we should try to protect on the Moon. Several groups here on Earth, such as For All Moonkind, have spent years arguing that the first crewed lunar landing sites are an important part of human history and should be preserved, but at the moment there’s no law or treaty preventing someone from erasing the rover tracks or astronauts’ footprints.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module casts a long shadow over the surface of the Moon — and the footprints of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — in July 1968.


The Navajo aren't the only people who consider the Moon sacred. Cultures around the world have always tended to connect the Moon with the divine. For Hindus, the Moon represents the god Chandra, who is associated with plants and the night. Shinto believers see the Moon as the god Tsukuyomi, and for the Inuit, it's Alignak, a god whose domain includes weather, tides, and earthquakes. In ancient times, the Greeks worshiped the virginal huntress and nature goddess Artemis, while the Egyptians worshiped the god Khonsu, a healer and protector of nighttime travelers.

These deities' domains reveal a lot about how people have seen the moon over the millennia. It's been something pure, a bright light in the darkness, sometimes protective but other times belonging more to wild things than to people.

But the Moon is also a place; in the late 1500s, Galileo pointed his early telescopes at the Moon and discovered mountains, valleys, and craters. Today, we know the Moon as a dusty landscape marked by ancient volcanoes and billions of years of meteors. We've crashed spacecraft into its surface (both accidentally and on purpose), a few people have walked and even driven around small parts of it, and most of them left behind bags of waste and piles of dead-weight junk. But most of the Moon is still what astrophysicist and space ethicist Erika Nesvold calls a “space wilderness." She acknowledges that it's hard to think of wilderness in a place with no life, but argues that perhaps we should.

“We also have to ask questions about things like resource overuse,” says Nesvold. “If we mine out all the water on the moon in the next three generations, what are future generations going to do? Do we need to make sure we're preserving any of that?”

Increasingly, national governments and private companies are seeing the Moon not as a deity, a symbol, or a scientific puzzle: they're beginning to see it as a resource: a source of fuel and water on the way to Mars, a site for radio telescopes, or a source of geopolitical clout.

And that's sparking an urgent debate about whether some parts of the Moon remain pristine -- and if so, which parts. Whose faith and traditions, whose scientific curiosity, whose sense of aesthetics, or whose billion-dollar business plan should decide the fate of the Moon's ancient landscape?

China is the Unites States’ main competitor in the current “space race,” with India close behind.

Future Publishing/Future Publishing/Getty Images

If you’re not first, you’re last

Part of the challenge of “space ethics” is to figure out what to do about these issues, but the really difficult part will be figuring out who gets to have a say. Can anyone tell a private company where, or whether, they can mine the Moon, open a lunar landfill, or turn a crater into a cemetery? How can countries with wildly differing values agree on the value – commercial, scientific, or ideological – of the Moon?

“At the more international level, that’s what international law is for,” says Nesvold.

At the moment, only the absolute basics are covered, starting with the Outer Space Treaty, in which most of the world’s nations have agreed that no one can claim territory in space, the Moon is to be used only for peaceful purposes, and nuclear weapons aren’t allowed in space. The Registration Convention requires states to register the orbital paths of their spacecraft with the UN to help prevent collisions. And the Rescue Agreement requires states to help spacefarers in distress, regardless of where they’re from.

Another treaty, the Space Liability Convention, says that spacecraft are the responsibility of the country they’re launched from — whether they’re publicly or privately owned. That means it’s up to an individual country to decide whether a company can launch human remains, soda cans, tardigrades, or anything else to the Moon (under U.S. regulations, any payload can go as long as it’s safe to launch and not a threat to national security).

What’s not covered by those laws is whether it’s okay to carve a giant advertising logo into a lunar basin, inter human remains or leave branded trinkets on the Moon, mine iconic lunar landmarks, or send tourists to the Apollo 11 landing site to walk in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps. And those are all very real possibilities in the near future. Space law, and space ethics, are urgent works in progress.

This artist’s illustration shows what future construction projects on the Moon might look like.


Meanwhile, the power to make those decisions is a big reason countries like the U.S., China, India, and Russia are all scrambling to get a foothold on the lunar surface before their rivals. Being the first to set up shop on the Moon is a huge way for a nation to show off its power, wealth, and technological chops. But on a practical level, being first also means first pick of landing sites, first dibs on lunar resources, and the first chance to choose which pieces of the lunar environment to protect.

“Ultimately, the people who get to make the decisions are the ones who are there,” says Green. “So that's why you hope that the people who are making the decisions and who are there are going to be ethical and actually considerate of other people's opinions.”

But that space race mentality can have its own problems.

“The space race dynamic always makes ethics more complicated,” says Green.

For one thing, there’s the question of what ethical shortcuts a nation or company might be willing to take to get there first. That could mean exploiting workers, taking undue risks with astronauts, or damaging the environment here on Earth.

“People who are arguing for more space telescopes, or people who are arguing for space launch centers on the path towards settling space often have really noble-sounding rhetoric: The idea of rocket launches and building more human civilization in space, versus the concerns about potential pollutants in local wetlands – the sorts of things you hear about in places like Boca Chica,” Nesvold tells Inverse. “I think that's very similar to the sort of manifest destiny rhetoric that you would see during colonization.”

Humans will go to great lengths to plant their country’s flag.


America’s crewed space program was built on a major ethical shortcut: the work of Nazi officer Werner von Braun, who also designed the V2 rockets that killed around 9,000 British civilians during World War II (thousands more forced laborers died building them). Operation Paperclip, which brought von Braun and his team of engineers to the U.S., might have been unthinkable without the pressure to stay ahead of the USSR in space.

What space ethicists like Green and Nesvold want to avoid is a future where we plow blindly forward, with whoever gets there first imposing their will on a satellite that has, for all of human history until now, belonged to everyone – but at the same time, to no one. Nesvold warns that if we do that, we risk repeating the injustices of colonialism here on Earth.

Is Antarctica a Blueprint for Space?

Nations whose interests and values often clash will have to agree on how to manage a commons: "a broad set of resources, natural and cultural, that are shared by many people," as the International Association for the Study of the Commons puts it. We've already done that here on Earth, to some extent. The future of the Moon and Mars may owe a lot to the system of treaties that protect Antarctica and the set of laws that apply in international waters.

The international agreements that protect these adorable penguins could provide a framework for cooperation on the Moon.

Anadolu/Anadolu/Getty Images

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty reserves the entire Antarctic continent for peaceful, scientific use. No commercial mining is allowed, and there are strict rules protecting plants, wildlife, and landscapes. Tourists, scientists, and even some military personnel are allowed to visit (or live there for months at a stretch), but only if the expedition or tour operator has a permit from one of the 56 countries that have signed the treaty.

Countries that issue permits have regulations about the type of activity and the number of people they'll allow; some of those rules are to protect the fragile polar environment, but others are for safety. For example, "the UK will also not normally authorize the use of helicopters for recreational purposes in areas with concentrations of wildlife, including the Antarctic Peninsula region." (As a side note, "for safety reasons the UK will not authorize snorkeling activities in the Antarctic." The more you know.)

Eight of the countries who signed the treaty claim sectors of territory in Antarctica, and some of them overlap. In theory, no one is allowed to claim new territory in Antarctica; the eight countries that claim sectors today had already made their claims before the Antarctic Treaty was written, and part of the treaty forbids anyone from making new claims. But both the U.S. and Russia argue that they've reserved the right to claim territory in Antarctica in the future.

On the other hand, several countries, including the U.S., have research stations in other countries' sectors without any major conflict.

If someone wants to violate the Antarctic Treaty, it's going to be hard to stop them without resorting to military force. That's even more true on the Moon. But so far, the Antarctic Treaty has worked fairly well.

"If we can look at what's worked and what hasn't in terms of preventing conflicts and protecting the environment, then we can apply those in space," says Nesvold.

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