After nearly a decade’s worth of Mars-oriented development, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent speech to the newly-resurrected Space Council has put the red planet on the back burner, in favour of a destination a little closer to home— the Moon.
Months of vague comments and leaked memos suggesting possible missions to put humans back on the Moon by 2020 have created unrest for those in space-adjacent industries. In late June, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order reinstating the National Space Council, naming Pence chair of the agency. Following this, hints pointing towards new plans for lunar construction were boosted in early October by Pence’s comments in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, where he encouraged ‘a renewed American presence on the moon’ as a ‘vital strategic goal’ for U.S. economic and defence policy alike.
Last week, the Trump administration made the pivot official: a policy direction that will soon end the now 45-year human absence from the Moon. At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on 5 October 2017 , Pence announced ‘we will return NASA astronauts to the Moon— not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation.’
This announcement marks a return to the agenda set by former President George W. Bush, this time with much firmer conviction and some of the strongest language regarding a manned mission ever used in U.S. legislation. The Obama-era ‘Journey to Mars’ plans saw the Moon mostly as a pitstop on the way to greater destinations, and in the last decade developed some of the most advanced deep-space technology in existence. Pence’s announcement suggests a change in how NASA’s recent technology will be utilised, including NASA’s crowning jewel of the last decade— the Space-Launch System and Orion. These spacecrafts, originally purposed to carry humans into deep space, include plans for a cislunar pitstop that will likely be repurposed for lunar landings.
Whatever the destination, one thing remains certain: the U.S. is not alone in its objectives. The last several decades have seen the increase of competition in the space arena, with entities including Russia, China, India, and the EU becoming intimidating space powers. The United States is far from alone in its plans to put humans on the Moon; The European Space Agency (ESA) and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) have begun discussions on a potential ‘Moon Village’, according to ESA director General Jan Woerner. In 2015, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced its plans for ‘a manned flight to the moon and lunar landing [in] 2029.’ Similarly, the Indian Space Research Organisation will launch its Chandrayaan-2 mission early next year, with an objective of the deepest lunar surface probe to date.
The Trump administration’s new direction puts the government in direct competition, or business, with growing commercial space companies and major agencies around the world, each of whom have their own designs to make lunar landings a mainstay. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company set on making ‘spacecations’ feasible, has stated on record that its Mars-destined mega-rocket could contribute to lunar voyages. Musk himself made recent statements shifting his support towards lunar aspirations, saying flatly: ‘it’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now.’ Musk, who served on Trump’s business advisory panel before resigning in June, likely influenced the Trump Administration’s shift in space.
Oppositely, many proponents of Martian exploration fear Trump’s lunar plans will translate into the Moon becoming a destination, not a stepping stone. Plans to put humans on Mars as soon as the early 2030’s face decades-long push-backs, leading to resource and technology shifts that could let ‘the idea of getting to Mars [slip] indefinitely into the future,’ as John Logsdon, former director of the Space-Policy Institute at the George Washington University, adds. Though Pence did not necessarily take Mars off the table for the future, it’s clear the Trump administration has chosen to pursue the Moon forthright.
And while the flurry of space exploration plans might spark the public’s interest, no doubt in part due to the past several years’ slew of space-themed movies, it remains that significant and binding legal infrastructure surrounding territorial claims of extraterrestrial bodies falls deplorably behind. For the UN and many of its bodies, space law has not been a priority since the late 1970s, and even so was never binding to begin with. The Moon Agreement, the UN’s single Moon-specific piece of legislation, counts only 11 parties, none of which maintain their own space programme.
With the United States’ pivot back towards the Moon, effective legislation is needed now more than ever. Thus far, the strongest legislation to date remains the 1967 ‘Outer Space Treaty,’ assigning that ‘outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty’ nor by means of use or occupation.’ However, it’s unclear to what degree the resolution actually offers directives for peaceful development in space, the principles mostly composing a general outline of state responsibility for actions in space and a vague declaration that the use of outer space ‘shall be carried out for the benefits… of all countries.’ The Moon Agreement, with merely 5 ratified countries, doesn’t do much more— simply adding a suggestion for an international regime governing resource exploitation ‘when such exploitation is about to become feasible.’
It’s possible the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) or within it, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), could function as this regime, though there has been limited recent action by international bodies, despite the timeframe for ‘feasible exploitation’ rapidly approaching. Plans to put humans and structures on the Moon have been in motion for years now, with little movement to prepare for the territorial disputes and legal issues inevitable in the staggered nature of nations’ lunar voyages. These delays have put the future of tensions between major powers in an increasingly fragile state.
Furthermore, space legislation may not be the only precedent for lunar missions. Similar contexts of territorial development including the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Law of the Sea offer helpful frameworks for what claims could look like in space. The Antarctic Treaty, in particular, appears to mirror lunar development. Though the treaty contends, ‘no new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty… shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force,’ 7 nations retain territories with scientific bases and legal codes. Much like the Outer Space Treaty, Antarctica recognises no formal territories, yet further maintains defined claims taking up nearly the entire continent, although these claims remain contested in the international community.
Nevertheless, the Antarctic Treaty fails to address the issue that plagued its race for territory, and that will undoubtedly be seen again in space: the exclusion of developing nations. The Outer Space Treaty’s vague claim of outer space as free for ‘use by all states’ provides no substantial opportunity for smaller states, many of whom may not arrive in space for another century. While some space agencies play catch up, NASA is powering ahead with a large backing from the Oval Office.
So, what does the U.S.’s new direction mean for international tensions in the future? Will the Moon be this decade’s stage for power politics? Will one country’s lunar landing ignite a new-age global space race?
Though only time can answer these questions, as we move into the 2020s, one thing remains clear: in the next decade, the world will have no choice but to create and accept a new kind of diplomacy for the future of humanity in space.