Insight - Emerging Lunar Governance Challenges and the Moon Dialogs

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

By Space Law Advisor Christopher Johnson

In the United States and around the world, there is a renewed interest in lunar exploration and development. NASA Administrator James F. Bridenstine announced in May 2019 the Artemis program, a refocusing of America’s space exploration with the stated goal of landing “the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon by 2024.” Following robotic missions starting in 2021, crewed Artemis missions will use Orion capsules to land near the Moon’s South Pole. These missions are intended to serve as a testbed for capabilities and technologies for an eventual human mission to Mars, but NASA and its partners also intend to establish a long-term and flourishing human presence on the Moon. These projects and programs will be a diverse set of activities, including both scientific research and exploration and the commercialization and development of the Moon. Artemis partners will include both traditional and emerging space agencies from across the globe, and with commercial partners providing infrastructure and mission components.

While this is America’s flagship human spaceflight initiative, it is crucial to remember that Artemis – and lunar exploration in general – is a globalized activity. Many spacefaring states have lunar ambitions, including China’s Chang’e-5 sample return mission slated to launch this year. The International Space Exploration Coordination Working Group (ISECG), which comprises 22 participating organizations, reflects a truly global space exploration effort. The ISECG’s coordinating forum to harness synergies has a regularly updated Global Exploration Roadmap

Why does this matter to the Secure World Foundation (SWF) – an NGO focused on space sustainability and the use of space for human and environmental security on Earth? To date, SWF has been concerned with issues like the persistent and growing problems of space debris, space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) activities, and geopolitical issues such as the increasing tensions resulting from national military activities in outer space. 

SWF does not have a stake in space exploration decisions and roadmaps. Nor do we have a position on whether the Moon or Mars is the next best destination for humans to explore. But exploration and human spaceflight programs still matter to our focus areas, as exploration programs are often examples of international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space, and they address important governance questions about a shared domain. More broadly, these civil space activities exist within a larger context of geopolitical relationships. 

As lunar ambitions go from visions to operational programs, it is becoming clearer that more States will become actively involved in a variety of lunar activities, and that lunar policy is now a serious field with real geopolitical implications. In the next decade there will be a possibility for lunar interests and ambitions to overlap and possibly conflict. And while the Moon is a place where we would like to see peace persist and flourish, tensions on Earth might affect activities on the Moon, and tensions and conflicts on the Moon might have ramifications back here on Earth. 

To openly discuss lunar governance issues amongst stakeholders, SWF has partnered with the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, For All Moonkind, the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, and the Open Lunar Foundation to hold the Moon Dialogs, an open-ended discussion platform for members of our organizations to share concepts, ideas, and potential projects. 

Our largest project to date is the public-facing Moon Dialogs Research Salons. These virtual, open forum sessions are aimed at capacity building and discussion of lunar plans and activities, and their policy and governance implications. 

In April, our first Research Salon focused on lunar resources (and policy considerations thereof) with presentations by Martin Elvis of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics and Alanna Krowlikowski of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, on the Moon as a highly differentiated celestial body with a variety of valuable and potentially rivalrous locations and resources. Unique locations, such as the “Peaks of Eternal Light”, and over 200 other unique and interesting locations create the conditions where international cooperation and coordination is absolutely essential, and Elvis and Krowlikowski teased out the policy and governance implications from the scientific facts of the Moon’s geography and resources. 

In May, the second Research Salon included Phil Metzger of the University of Central Florida, investigating lunar dust and the challenges it brings to all lunar activities, and the necessity of landing pads to mitigate at least some dust creation. The third Research Salon, in June, looked deeper into the concept of safety zones on the Moon, and Yoav Landsman, former Deputy Mission Director of Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander, and Timiebi Aganaba of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative, discussed the necessity of safety and coordination between lunar actors, as well as the possibilities for tensions and misuse that might potentially result.

Planetary protection was the focus of our most recent Research Salon on July 9. NASA Administrator Bridenstine gave a briefing on two new NASA Interim Directives on planetary protection: one for the Moon, and the other for Mars. Following the newsworthy briefing on these new NASA Directives, a panel of experts explored their various scientific, programmatic, and international contexts and implications. The panel was moderated by For All Moonkind’s Michelle Hanlon and featured Tanja Masson-Zwaan Assistant Professor and Deputy Director of the International Institute of Air and Space Law at Leiden University and SWF Advisory Committee member; Mike Gold, the Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations at NASA HQ; Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Principal Investigator on the Psyche mission to a rocky asteroid; and Alan Stern, Principal Investigator on the New Horizons and Chair of the NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB) Report

We can see from the wide variety of topics of the salons - from scarce lunar resources, to lunar dust, to lunar safety zones, and now planetary protection issues - that there are a plethora of topics to really explore fully in order to get a good understanding of all the policy and governance challenges for the Moon and we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic. To date, well over a thousand people have attended at least one Moon Dialogs online session, and many return to each salon. A lunar policy community is beginning to emerge.

The Moon Dialogs aims to promote dialogue amongst interested parties and stakeholders in all manner of lunar activities: planetary scientists, space lawyers, academia, the commercial industry, ethicists and philosophers, astrobiologists, space policy experts, etc.. This wide participation and engagement will allow us to create a list of open questions and concerns, which might not have arisen in discussions held among only one type of stakeholder. It will serve as a reference for policy makers on the key policy questions and important topics for debate that exist for the governance of future activities on the Moon. 

As for what’s next in the Moon Dialogs, we will continue broadening the scope of our topics explored, including with underrepresented participants in lunar discussions, like ethicists, environmentalists, and indigenous groups. We invite you to suggest topics and ideas to us. If the topic warrants it, we might also do special workshops with smaller groups of stakeholders, including behind closed doors and under Chatham House Rule. 

Additionally, the Moon Dialogs partners will be editing a special issue of the Journal of Space Law, a publication from the University of Mississippi’s Center for Air and Space Law, to be entirely focused on lunar governance issues. The issue will present a possible near-term lunar scenario with various governmental and commercial actors on the Moon. Subsequent articles in the issue will then examine various legal, policy, economics, and technical aspects of this baseline scenario. We are still formulating the articles and will be inviting authors soon, so please contact us if you’d like to be considered and would like to contribute. 

Finally, The SWF Summit for Space Sustainability, taking place on September 9, 10 and 11, will feature a panel discussion on cislunar and lunar sustainability with speakers from NASA, Space Exploration Engineering, Leiden University, Blue Origin, and the Open Lunar Foundation. Registration is still open, and more information is available on the Summit website.

Last updated on August 5, 2020