Space pioneer Robert Bigelow believes that private companies, like his own space firm Bigelow Aerospace, should be able to own lunar property.
Bigelow Aerospace and NASA held a press conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday, November 12 to discuss Bigelow Aerospace’s completed and upcoming projects. NASA’s dwindling resources have forced the agency to rely on private space companies, like Bigelow Aerospace, to provide hardware and other resources in order to realize missions. Bigelow Aerospace secured contracts with NASA in 2013 to test an expandable habitat on the International Space Station and to develop plans for a base on the moon.
At the recent press conference in Washington, DC, Bigelow also discussed lunar mining and the need for property rights on the Moon. The question of whether a person or private company can legally own property on the Moon has been a longstanding issue of debate.
The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, commonly referred to as the Outer Space Treaty, is predominantly the basis for laws governing space. Article II of the Outer Space Treaty states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Some strictly interpret this provision to mean that, although governments may not claim property rights, private companies may indeed claim ownership. But Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty provides, “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”
Those who argue that the Outer Space Treaty does not regulate private behavior overlook the importance of Article VI. To this point, in his book The Development of Outer Space: Sovereignty and Property Rights in International Space Law, Thomas Gangale, executive director of aerospace think tank Ops-Alaska, cites Lawrence A. Cooper, an attorney specializing in space law: “Some have argued that [Outer Space Treaty]’s broad definitions allow individual appropriation of space and celestial bodies because it only specifically prohibits appropriation by States; however, States are responsible for the actions of individuals, and property claims must occur through the State’s property laws. Therefore individuals may not claim space or celestial bodies.” In essence, all parties in space are bound by the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty binds the governments, and the governments bind their citizens through laws and other means.
Critics note that current space law is riddled with ambiguities, an issue that necessitates revisiting the Outer Space Treaty to modify and expand the framework for space law. Robert Bigelow believes “The time has come to get serious about lunar property rights.”
When asked by CNBC if he believes anyone should own the Moon, Bigelow responded, “No. No one anything should own the moon. But, yes, multiple entities, group, individual, yes. They should have opportunity to own the Moon.” Explaining his reasoning for wanting lunar property rights, Bigelow stated, “Ultimately, permanent lunar bases will have to be anchored to permanent commercial facilities . . . Without property rights there will be no justification for investment and the risk to life.”
Bigelow called for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow property rights for lunar mining. But National Geographic reports that, according to the FAA, “The agency only regulates launches and reentries of rockets from orbit, and doesn’t oversee activities of spacecraft.” But Bigelow Aerospace attorney Mike Gold believes that, because of the FAA’s oversight of launches, it is the right place to start asking for permission to mine the Moon.
Read more about the complexities and ambiguities existing in current space law in the April/May 2013 issue of Open Minds magazine.