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Who owns the moon? A space lawyer answers



This is probably the most famous image of a flag ever made: Buzz Aldrin stood next to the first US flag on the moon. For those who knew their world history, some alarm bells sounded. Less than a century ago, back on Earth, the planting of one national flag in another part of the world still meant claiming that territory for the Fatherland. Have the stars and stripes on the moon symbolized the founding of an American colony?

When people hear for the first time that I, as a lawyer, are practicing and teaching the "Spatial Law," they often ask, often with a big smile or a twinkle in their eyes: "Tell me, who owns it Moon?"

Of course, the demand for new national territories was a European custom applied to non-European parts of the world. In particular, the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch, the French and the English created huge colonial empires. But while their attitude was very Europe-centered, the legal notion that flagging was an act of sovereignty establishment quickly remained firm and was accepted worldwide as part of the law of nations.

Obviously the astronauts had more important things in their minds than thinking about the legal significance and consequences of that planted flag, but fortunately the problem had been resolved before the mission. Since the beginning of the space race, the US has known that for many people around the world, the sight of a US flag on the moon would cause major political problems. Any suggestion that the moon could legally become part of the American backwaters could reinforce such concerns and possibly trigger international disputes that damage both the US space program and US interests as a whole.

Decolonization could take place until 1

969 destroyed any notion that non-European parts of the world, though populated, were not civilized and thus rightly subject to European sovereignty – however, there was not a single person living on the moon; even life itself was not there.

Yet, the simple answer to the question of whether Armstrong and Aldrin have turned the moon, or at least a large part of it, into American territory through their small ceremony, turns out to be "no." NASA or the US government wanted the US Use this flag for this effect.

  This composite image of the moon using Clementine data from 1994 is the view we are most likely to see when the moon is full. "Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Centera [19659008ThiscompositeimageoftheMoonwithClementinedatafrom1994istheviewwearemostlikelytoseewhenthemoonisfullPhotoofNASAGoddardSpaceFlightCenter</p>
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<p><strong>  The First Space Contract </strong> </p>
<p>  Most importantly That this response was enshrined in the 1967 Space Treaty, to which both the United States and the Soviet Union as well as all others belong to space nations, had become a party Powers agreed that "colonization" on earth was responsible for enormous human suffering and many armed conflicts that had raged in recent centuries. They were determined not to repeat this mistake of the old European colonial powers when it came to deciding the legal status of the moon; At least the possibility of a "land grab" in space, which led to a renewed world war, should be avoided. Because of this, the Moon became a "global commons" that was legally accessible to all countries – two years before the first actual manned moon landing. </p><div><script async src=

So, the US flag was not a manifestation of sovereignty, but the tribute of American taxpayers and engineers made possible by Armstrong, Aldrin, and the third astronaut's mission, Michael Collins. The two men wore a commemorative plaque saying that they were "at peace for all of humanity," and of course Neil's famous words expressed the same sentiment that his "small step for man" was not a "giant leap" for the United States, but "for humanity." In addition, the US and NASA have lived up to their commitment by sharing the lunar rocks and other soil samples from the lunar surface with the rest of the world, either by distributing them to foreign governments or by discouraging scientists from all others around the world to make them accessible for scientific analysis and discussion. In the middle of the Cold War even scientists from the Soviet Union.

Case closed, no more need for room attorneys? I do not need the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Space Law students to prepare for further discussions and disputes about the Moon Law, right?

No space lawyers needed?

Not so fast. While the legal status of the Moon as a "global commons" accessible to all countries in peaceful missions was not a substantial resistance or a significant challenge, the Space Treaty left further details unclarified. In contrast to the then very optimistic assumptions, humanity has not returned to the moon since 1972, which makes the rights of the moon landing largely theoretical.

That is, until a few years ago, several new plans were worked out to go back to the moon. In addition, at least two US companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which have serious financial support, have begun targeting asteroids for the purpose of mining their natural resources. Geek Note: Under the aforementioned space contract, the moon and other celestial bodies such as asteroids legally belong in the same basket. None of them can become the "territory" of one or more sovereign states.

The very fundamental prohibition of the space contract to acquire new territory through flags or other means failed due to the commercial exploitation of natural resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies. This is a great debate that is currently raging in the international community without a clearly accepted solution in sight. Roughly speaking, there are two general interpretations possible.

  A super blood moon, colored red by stray light. Photo of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

A super blood moon tinted red by stray light. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

So you want to mine an asteroid

Countries like the United States and Luxembourg (as the gateway to the European Union) agree that the moon and asteroids are "global." commons, "meaning that every country allows its private entrepreneurs, as long as they are properly licensed and in accordance with other relevant rules of space law, to go there and extract what they can to earn money A bit like the law of the high seas, which is not under the control of a single country, but is completely open to properly licensed law-abiding fisheries by citizens and companies of a country. Once the fish is in its nets, it is legal to sell. [19659002] On the other hand, countries like Russia, and somewhat less explicitly Brazil and Belgium, keep the moon and the asteroids of the human race t belong as a whole. And that is why the potential benefits of commercial exploitation for all of humankind should be created – or at least subjected to a presumably stringent international regime – to guarantee the benefit to all humankind. It's a bit like the regime originally created for harvesting natural resources from the deep ocean floor. It has created an international licensing regime, as well as an international company that should reduce those resources and generally share the benefits between all countries.

In my opinion, the former position would certainly make more sense, both legally and practically the litigation is far from over. Meanwhile, the interest in the moon has also renewed – at least China, India and Japan have serious plans to return there and to increase the stakes even further. Therefore, we will have to teach our students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln about these topics for many years. While ultimately the international community must decide whether to reach a common agreement on either or both of these positions, it is crucial that agreement can be reached in one way or another. Such activities, which are developed without generally applicable and accepted law, would be a worst-case scenario. Although it is no longer colonization, it can have the same harmful consequences.

 The Conversation

Frans von der Dunk has a consulting firm dealing with issues of space law and space. This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original article.


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