Slicing Up The Moon
[Wired, December 2007]
All Your Moonbase Are Belong To Us
BONUS: A reader writes a song
By RICHARD MORGAN
In 2005, the Canadian military launched Exercise Frozen Beaver. Eleven soldiers flew in helicopters to Hans Island, a hunk of rock off the coast of Greenland that's long been claimed by both Denmark and Canada. When they landed on the half-square-mile outcropping, the troops planted a Canadian flag, ripping down the Danish colors that had been flying there since 1984. Once they got home they mailed the confiscated flag to the Danish ambassador in Ottawa.
It was the opening shot in what has become a fusillade of bizarre military posturing over the Arctic. Among the most recent — and weirdest — incidents: Russian scientist Artur Chilingarov used a small submersible to plant a Russian flag encased in a titanium capsule on the Arctic seafloor some 13,000 feet under the North Pole. "If someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves," he said. "The Arctic has always been Russian." In fact, all five nations with Arctic borders — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US — have engaged in at least some saber rattling over the frozen territory. And it wouldn't be happening without global warming. Roughly 386,000 square miles of Arctic ice melted in 2007 alone, opening the fabled Northwest Passage for the first time in recorded history. The melt also made the billions of barrels of oil thought to be under the Arctic suddenly seem within our grasp. Some are calling it the Cold Rush.
But what has gone unnoticed amid the international clamor is that the Arctic battle has implications that reach far beyond the top of Earth. The squabbling will be a prelude to — and even set the tone for — eventual sovereignty claims on the moon. At the same time that it was making Arctic claims, Russia announced plans for manned lunar missions by 2025 and a permanent base there by 2032. Japan might beat them to the punch with a 2030 base. Both will be able to stop over and share a glass of Tang with US astronauts, who are supposed to start setting up shop in 2020. China also has lunar aspirations, though officials will say only that they plan to get to the moon sometime after 2020.
It could get crowded up there, and the rules for lunar landgrabs will likely be patterned on what is happening now in the far north. "The recent Arctic events are relevant," says Joanne Gabrynowicz, an international space law expert at the University of Mississippi. "The seabed, high seas, Antarctica, and space are, as a matter of law, global commons. What happens in one can be argued to be legal precedent in the others."
The moon may lack traditional loot — there's no gold, no oil, no trade route — but that doesn't mean it's worthless. Harrison Schmitt, the only astronaut to walk on the moon who was also a scientist (in fact, a geologist), advocates mining it for helium-3, a rare isotope thought to be an ideal fuel for fusion reactors. Since 2002, Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China's lunar exploration team, has made his country's intentions clear: "Our long-term goal is to set up a base on the moon and mine its riches for the benefit of humanity." But by far the moon's biggest asset is its primal cachet. Lunar settlers could brandish their nationalism over all of Earth every night. Add to that the fact that the moon is perfect practice for conquest of Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. In human history, anywhere there's value, there are eventually property rights.
It's been several hundred years since a virgin patch of Earth was successfully claimed by anyone. Now that we may be facing valuable unsullied territory again, it would be wise to come up with a better system. Do we really want to see a repeat of the Americas, colonial Africa, or the Middle East? "As I tell my students, when humans have a conflict there are only two options: to reach agreement or to fight," Gabrynowicz says. "Even agreeing to disagree or doing nothing simply puts these options further into the future; it does not create additional options. At the level of nations, these options are law or war."
Lunar war? Over helium-3? Over a barren, inhospitable rock that costs a fortune to get to? It's not worth the effort. Of course, people once said that about the North Pole.
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