Save the Moon!
For 4.5 billion years, the moon has been a faithful neighbor, peering brightly from its backyard some 280,000 miles away. Born almost simultaneously with Earth, perhaps from a massive comet strike that clove us in two, it appears as inspiration and enigma, fossil and harbinger, a nightly reminder of where our planet came from and where, for better or worse, we may be headed. And it just gets more interesting. Scientists now know that the moon harbors water, in dark craters thick with ice. And recent reanalysis of the Apollo 11 samples suggests that a volume of water more than twice that of the Great Lakes is locked below ground in the moon's rocks, enough to cover the lunar surface in a three-foot-deep sea.
The moon, already busy with probes and satellites, will surely get busier. At least five countries aim to send astronauts there in the next 10 to 20 years. Valuable minerals, including helium-3 and perhaps uranium, await exploitation. Lately when the moon hits my eye, it looks the way Antarctica looked not so long ago: like both a natural marvel and a tantalizing morsel, rich with subsurface resources -- if only we could easily extract them. So I'm thinking: what the moon needs is its own Antarctic Treaty. Make it off-limits to everyone but scientists. Let's save the moon, before it's too late.
I hear guffaws. With all that's wrong on Earth, why fret about the moon? But consider: the "Earth environment" has vastly expanded in the past half-century. The outer reaches of our planet's atmosphere are now thick with satellites critical to navigation and communication; the exospheric fringe is as central to our lives as the soil we stand on. The moon is but the next, small step. Although the United States just killed its manned lunar program, it is dishing out prizes and tax incentives to help the private sector get us into space more readily than NASA has done. If free enterprise applies freely -- if we proceed with the view that anything within our reach is for the taking -- then the matter of how we preserve the global commons is as relevant up there as it is down here.
Some would argue that the moon is protected enough already. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by the major space-faring nations in 1967, stipulates that no country can own property on the moon or elsewhere in space. Private individuals can't own lunar property either, most space lawyers would say -- but it's muddy. (More than one company will gladly sell you a "legitimate" one-acre moon plot -- just $19.99!)
"I don't know about you, but I'm not going to invest in a company that might have those rights," says Rosanna Sattler, the head of the space law and telecommunications group at the Boston firm Posternak Blankstein & Lund. With the push to privatize space travel, there's a growing demand for lawyers who can navigate the legal thicket. Sattler, for one, has outlined a path to lunar leasing and prospecting that would steer clear of the obstacles imposed by the Outer Space Treaty.
The United Nations also tried, in 1979, with the so-called Moon Treaty, which declared the moon "the common heritage of mankind" and permits mining under the watch of an international agency yet to be created. The treaty echoes the U.N. Law of the Sea, which allows mining of the deep-sea bed -- also our "common heritage" -- through the International Seabed Authority. But the United States has never ratified the Moon Treaty or the Law of the Sea. Indeed, of the 13 nations that have ratified the Moon Treaty, not one is a space-going power. I propose a different model. Since 1961 Antarctica has been recognized by treaty as a province of science. Mining was considered there, too, then flatly prohibited in 1998 by the Madrid Protocol, which aims to preserve "the intrinsic value of Antarctica, including its wilderness and aesthetic values." The moon, I submit, deserves similar recognition.
An untrammeled moon clearly has much yet to reveal to science. As a wilderness, could one be wilder or more remote? It's the perfect frontier, there for the whole world to ponder 29 nights out of 30. So what if it's all geology? "If Delicate Arch has any significance," Edward Abbey wrote of the centerpiece of what is now Arches National Park, "it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful -- that which is full of wonder." Odd, startling, wondrous: that's the moon.Go ahead, laugh. Tell me a giant rock in space is still just a rock, that the moon needs no further defense. But mark these words: We'll be back there in no time, without the lofty motives that took us there 50 years ago. Next time around, we'll leave more than footprints, and depart with more than memories.