The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication on the latest research.
This is probably the most famous image of a flag ever taken: Buzz Aldrin is next to the first US flag planted 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 am a lawyer practicing and teaching "space law," they often ask, often with a big smile or a twinkle in their eyes, "So tell me who owns the moon?"
Of course, the use of new national territories was a European habit 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 stance was very Europe-centered, the legal notion that flagging was an act of sovereignty was quickly fixed and 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 luckily 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 assumption that the moon could legally become part of a backlog of US water could increase such concerns and possibly trigger international disputes that damage both the US space program and US interests.
Decolonization could play a role until 1
The simple answer to the question of whether Armstrong and Aldrin transformed 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 flag for this effect.
The First Space Contract
This response was recorded above all in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which the United States and the United States of America belonged, and the Soviet Union and all other space nations had become a party Both superpowers agreed that "colonization" on earth was responsible for enormous human suffering and many armed conflicts that had raged in recent centuries, and they were determined not to repeat that mistake of the old European colonial powers when it did it was about deciding the legal status of the moon, at least the possibility a "land grab" in space, which led to another world war, should be avoided. This made the Moon a "global commons" legally accessible to all countries – two years before the first actual manned moon landing.
The US flag was not a manifestation of claiming sovereignty, but honoring the American taxpayers and engineers who made possible Armstrong, Aldrin and the mission of the third astronaut 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 were present.
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. Contrary to the then very optimistic assumptions, humanity has not returned to the moon since 1972, which makes the land rights 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 fundamental prohibition of the space contract to acquire a national flag by attaching a flag or otherwise 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:
So you want to mine an asteroid?
Countries such as the United States and Luxembourg (as the gateway to the European Union) agree that the moon and asteroids are "global commons." This means that each country allows its private entrepreneurs as long as they are properly licensed In line with other relevant rules of space law, to go there and extract what they can to make money, it is a bit like the law of the high seas, which is not under the control of a single country, but completely open to properly licensed law-abiding fisheries of citizens and companies of a country is. Once the fish is in its nets, it is legal to sell.
On the other hand, countries such as Russia and somewhat less explicitly consider Brazil and Belgium that the moon and the Asteroids of humanity as a whole, and therefore the potential benefits of commercial exploitation for the Humanity may emerge – or at least be subjected to a presumably rigorous international regime to guarantee the benefit to all humanity. It's a bit like the regime originally created for harvesting natural resources from the deep ocean floor. It has created an international licensing system, as well as an international company that should reduce those resources and generally share benefits between all countries.
In my opinion, the previous position would certainly make more sense, both legally and practically the litigation is by no means 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.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.