The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has made a first step in opening the moon for commerce. According to Reuters, a recent request could allow U.S. companies to claim territory through a licensing process that had previously existed to handle space launches.
In late December 2014, the FAA granted Bigelow Aerospace permission to deploy one of its proposed inflatable habitats on the moon–and exclusive rights to the territory around it. But the FAA noted that its current national regulatory framework doesn’t gel with the United Nations Outer Space treaty the U.S. signed in 1967, which says governments must rein in and supervise companies operating in space while also prohibiting land claims to celestial bodies.
All of which are obvious obstacles to business expansion on the moon, but this is more a trial case to open a conversation than a landmark decision, Reuters reports:
“We didn’t give (Bigelow Aerospace) a license to land on the moon. We’re talking about a payload review that would potentially be part of a future launch license request. But it served a purpose of documenting a serious proposal for a U.S. company to engage in this activity that has high-level policy implications,” said the FAA letter’s author, George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation.
Bigelow Aerospace founder John Bigelow told Reuters that the FAA decision doesn’t mean a land grab has started–just that nobody can land on top of you or mine prospects you’ve already claimed.
Setting aside the argument of thinking we own whatever land we land on, future lunar business may clash with previous land claims of all natures by various enterprising individuals–like Dennis Hope, who notified the UN of his intent to claim planets, received no response, and has sold off parcels of land from the moon, Mars, and Venus ever since–a business that has been lucrative enough to support him since 1995.
Regardless of whether Hope’s claims are respected, space law is a growing niche that (barring the arrival of aliens) mainly deals with satellite issues and, increasingly, space mining rights. The latter may sound too technologically far off to treat seriously, but Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining venture, is backed by filmmaker James Cameron and Googlers Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.
Asteroid and moon mining are increasingly a concern for national security. China contains 90% of the world’s minerals needed for electronics, and the country has begun limiting exports of those metals to Japan. China’s first moon probe returned to Earth last November, and the country plans to go back in 2017. London artist Zhan Wang created “Lunar Economic Zone” to show a glimmering and slightly haunting Chinese moon colony, expressing the anxiety that China could dominate minerals on the moon as it does on Earth:
“I’m using the moon mining as kind of an analogy for China’s rare earth monopoly,” Wang told Fast Company. “There’s a conflict between the West’s fear of China’s localized economy and our desire for China to keep producing faster, cheaper, smaller electronics.”
The moon could hold those minerals, but surface scans are not accurate enough, says NASA: “Current data are only sufficient to indicate the presence of some concentrations of minerals, but are inadequate to survey and map their character and distribution.”