We live in a time when virtually every country and private industries have some designs on the Moon. The era of space tourism seems like it is just around the corner. These ideas are calling in to question certain legalities concerning the Moon – like who owns the Moon?

The Earth’s Moon is no man’s land.

That may seem like an erroneous statement since there are individuals that claim to own the moon. The assertion may also seem bold considering all the activity that is going on with the moon.

  • India just had its first lunar mission,
  • China landed on the far side of the moon, earlier this year
  • the entire world just celebrated the first human walk on the moon 50 years ago.
  • SpaceX (an aerospace manufacturer) is planning to send space tourist around the moon in the near future.

Those are just to name a few of the most recent lunar activities.

A view of the Moon taken in 1992 when Galileo spacecraft was on a mission. Photo courtesy of NASA
A view of the Moon taken in 1992 when Galileo spacecraft was on a mission. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Many individuals want to protect the Moon. They want to preserve the past that is already there, as well as the history currently being made. The problem is no one technically owns the moon. No one country or person has any sovereignty over the moon.

Outer Space Treaty of 1967

We can thank the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was initially agreed upon by the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to keep the Moon and all celestial bodies peaceful. As of 2019, 109 countries have signed and ratified the treaty, while another 23 countries have signed it and are in the process of ratification.

A view of the world and where they stand in regards to the treaty. Green=ratified; yellow=signed; red=not participating. 
Image provided by Seabed Arms Control Treaty parties.
A view of the world and where countries stand in regards to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Green=ratified; yellow=signed; red=not participating.
Image: HappenstanceDanlaycock et al., Seabed Arms Control Treaty partiesCC BY-SA 2.5

In the spirit of self-preservation, one of the central tenets of the treaty is to prevent mass annihilation. It states, “that no one will place weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any manner.”

Another important feature is in Article 2 of the Treaty that states: “Outer space, including the moon and celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

The Treaty goes on to outline that any items that are brought to the moon and remain on the Moon are the property of whoever placed or built it there.

Therefore, the Luna 2 is forever Russia’s while the flag Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed on the moon are for the United States. However, the ground itself belongs to no one. It’s not like anyone can go up there and place “no trespassing signs.”

The full text of the Outer Space Treaty is at: https://history.nasa.gov/1967treaty.html

Who owns the Moon Footprints?  Buzz Aldrin's footprints are still on the lunar surface. Photo courtesy NASA.
Who owns the Moon Footprints? Buzz Aldrin’s footprints are still on the lunar surface. Photo courtesy NASA.

Who Owns the Moon Bootprints

Due to the lack of atmosphere on the Moon, the very first bootprints of Neil Armstrong remain intact. The prints of the other 11 astronauts to walk the Moon afterward are also intact. The tread marks of lunar rovers remain. These marks display a map of where humanity has been. However, with all the activity that is starting to increase on the Moon, anyone landing on the Moon could erase those prints, intentionally or unintentionally. And there would be no recourse.

On Earth, we are very keen on preserving and documenting our history. A whole science, archeology, exists because we recognize the importance of our history.

We have protected the early human footprints in Laetoli, Tanzania, from 3.5 million years ago that marks the successful attempt by our common human ancestors to stand upright and stride on 2 feet. Yet we can not protect the footprints on the Moon.

Casts of the Laetoli prints courtesy of Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria
Casts of the Laetoli prints on display in the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria. Photo courtesy of Wolfgang SauberNHM – Laetoli FußspurenCC BY-SA 4.0

Preservation

The UNESCO World Heritage exists to designate important areas in our world that tell our story.

To be designated a world heritage site, the site must have “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of 10 criteria.

Some of these criteria include:

  • human creative genius
  • significance in human history
  • major states of earth’s history
  • heritage associated with events of universal significance.

Armstrong’s bootprints, Luna 2, and lunar history, in general, meet these requirements. However, only a country that is part of the World Heritage Convention can nominate a site from its nation. Since the Moon belongs to no country, it is not afforded protection.

Efforts Have Been Made

Beth O’Leary, a space archaeologist, along with then graduate students, Ralph Gibson, and John Versluis attempted to protect the Apollo 11 landing site, back in 1998, by petitioning NASA and the National Park Service.

Both institutions denied the request.

The goal initially was to have it declared a World Heritage Site. That required it to be on a National Register of Historic Places or certify that it was eligible to be on such a list.

Through their efforts, they have managed to get the artifacts and objects at Tranquility Base into state history registries in New Mexico and California.

A picture of Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base. 
Photo Courtesy of NASA. Who Owns the Moon?
A picture of Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base.
Photo Courtesy of NASA.

“It’s symbolic in nature,” O’Leary said when speaking to NPR on Morning Edition. “It recognizes space history and the archaeological record of space history.”

“I don’t think anybody would argue that this is not a significant, important Earth-shattering event in the history of humanity, ” O’Leary says, “and all humanity participated.”

Enter For All Moonkind, a non-profit organization created two years ago by Michelle Hanlon, an attorney, and space law professor, and Tim Hanlon. The goal is to protect humanity’s lunar heritage.

Ms. Hanlon told Time, “This is a very human story and we want people all over the world to embrace it as a human story.” She went on to say, “We want a little girl in Ghana to feel the same pride and ownership of (Armstrong’s) boot prints as a little girl in Mississippi.”

One Small Step

Hanlon helped draft a bill that was sponsored by Democrat Senator Gary Peters and Republican Senator Ted Cruz, “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act.”

The bi-partisan act would require all U.S. government-licensed missions to the lunar surface include an agreement to protect the site where humans first landed on the moon. “The landing of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and humanity’s first off-world footprints are achievements unparalleled in history,” reads the bill. (S. 1694)

Who owns the bootprints around the United States flag on Tranquility Base? Taken from inside the Lunar Module. Photo Courtesy of NASA. Who owns the Moon prints?
Who owns the bootprints around the United States flag on Tranquility Base? Taken from inside the Lunar Module. Photo Courtesy of NASA.

The act goes on to state: “As commercial enterprises and more countries acquire the ability to land on the moon, it is necessary to ensure the recognition and protection of the Apollo 11 landing site and other historic landing sites together with all the human effort and innovation the sites represent.”

“It is the sense of Congress that the President should initiate a diplomatic initiative to negotiate an international agreement,” the bill reads.

The act also contains a “sense of Congress”–though not technically binding under the law–that the executive branch should create an international agreement that would bind other nations to the same pledge.

One Small Step passed the Senate on July 18, 2019. It must pass the House to become a legal act.

Full text of One Small Step Act

https://www.forallmoonkind.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/One-Small-Step-Act-bill-text.pdf

NASA Guidelines

The One Small Step act does not draft new rules for protecting the Lunar Base; it relies on guidelines that NASA established in 2011.

NASA Historic Lunar Sites Guidlines: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/617743main_NASA-USG_LUNAR_HISTORIC_SITES_RevA-508.pdf

The guidelines protect the sites of Apollo 11 and 17. They are off-limits. The guidelines establish round-travel buffer and no-fly zones to avoid spraying rocket exhaust or dust onto aging, yet historic equipment.

A NASA photo shows the Apollo 17 landing site and the surrounding area. The thin lunar soil records the trails made by the astronauts and the Lunar Rover.
 Taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Who Owns the Moon?
A NASA photo shows the Apollo 17 landing site and the surrounding area. The thin lunar soil records the trails made by the astronauts and the Lunar Rover.
Taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The hope is that other countries would follow suit and begin creating cooperative legislation to protect humanity’s lunar and celestial history.

Hanlon stated, “We need (Armstrong’s) boot print to remind us of how amazing it is that we got there. And to be inspired by that to even more.”

Who Owns the Moon – Solved?

So has a solution to who owns the Moon be solved? No, NASA’s guideline is only a first step. As more expeditions are planned for the moon and outer space in general, this topic is undoubtedly growing as a hot button topic.

The expression, “can’t we all just get along” will definitely be put to the test. As Hanlon pointed out, the fact that we have the International Space Station is proof that we can work together successfully.

To learn what you can do and keep abreast of how to preserve our lunar history, follow the Hanlon’s journey at https://www.forallmoonkind.org

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