NASA Program Aims To Put Commercial Landers On The Moon, Stirs Property Rights Debate

By Joelle Renstrom | Updated

moon miningNASA recently announced a new initiative called Lunar CATALYST (Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown) and is seeking proposals to join forces with commercial companies who can develop and deliver robotic lunar landers. The way the partnership works is that participants have free access to NASA scientists, equipment, laboratories, software, and research in exchange for giving NASA the rights to any lander designed during the partnership. While the initiative reflects the growing collaboration between the private and public sectors, some believe that the program penalizes foreign teams and may give rise to property rights disputes when it comes to who owns or regulates what happens on the moon.

The initiative takes Google’s Lunar XPrize — a $40-million competition incentivizing private companies to develop a robotic spacecraft that can get to the moon, travel 500 meters, and send images back to Earth by 2015 — to the next level in terms of requirements for the lunar lander. For this project, NASA seeks two types of landers: one that can carry 30-100 kg of supplies, and a bigger one that can carry 250-500 kg of supplies. CATALYST is also building on NASA’s use of private companies such as SpaceX to deliver cargo to the ISS.

The initiative is particularly helpful for aspiring lunar mining companies, especially those who have been paying to access the same NASA resources that they’ll be able to use for free if they become part of the program. In general, the venture is likely to promote commercial ventures to the moon, but American ventures seem to have quite a leg up.

Lunar XPrize entrants from the Barcelona Space Team pointed out that the initiative puts international companies at a disadvantage because of strict regulations prohibiting NASA from sharing space technology and information with foreigners. “We applaud NASA’s efforts to support private initiatives to develop commercial robotic exploration, but we wonder whether this unbalances the competition in favor of the American teams,” they said.

Their criticism raises additional questions about commercial activity on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 lays out “principles governing the activities of states in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies.” The Treaty has all kinds of good stuff in it about using space for the benefit of all people, not putting weapons in orbit, etc. The Treaty also suggests that nations can’t appropriate or own the moon and its resources, regardless of whether astronauts from those nations build on the moon or stick a flag in it. In fact, the Treaty goes so far as to stipulate that space-faring nations have to share information, resources, and even equipment, which could include benefits (monetary and otherwise) from moon-mining operations. The U.S. hasn’t signed the section of the Treaty dictating moon agreements because of its “anti-business” language.

Bigelow  moon habitat
Bigelow moon habitat

Because this is all thus far hypothetical, Bigelow Aerospace has volunteered to become the first test case. The company submitted a request to the FAA seeking permission to put one of its habitats on the moon and asking that that permission include a “zone of non-interference and non-impingement.” This is the closest anyone has come to asking for lunar property rights, and it’ll be interesting to see what the FAA says. While divvying up the moon into chunks “owned” by a company (or country) seems to me to defeat the spirit of the Treaty, it’s also the case that private companies might not be willing to invest in operations such as moon mining without some kind of property rights. Depending on the FAA’s ruling, we may be looking at a whole new meaning of the term “space race.”