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Lunar ISRU device
Effective utilization of lunar resources may require an international regime to avoid potential conflicts and maxmize the return on investment. (credit: NASA)

The International Lunar Decade

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While much has been learned about the Moon over the decades since the beginning of spaceflight, understanding of its potential resource wealth is incomplete and the technologies to exploit those resources remain to be developed. Now with China, Russia, and the US demonstrating the ability to land and operate on the Moon, and with ESA, India, Japan, and others developing such abilities, it is becoming increasingly clear that capabilities to exploit the resources of the Moon can be developed. Furthermore, the discovery of water in the lunar polar regions, near elevations in permanent sunshine, has led to the development of specific plans for the exploitation of the water resources for fuel for transportation operations in cislunar space, notably by Paul Spudis.

What is proposed is an “International Lunar Decade” to study lunar resources and to develop capabilities for exploiting such resources.

The obvious high value of the Moon’s water resources creates a basis for international competition—a Moon Race—and potential conflict. The necessity of an international regime for the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon is likely to become an urgent matter for all spacefaring powers. The development of an effective international regime for the exploitation of the Moon’s resources would benefit from a thorough, internationally coordinated study of those resources and from the development of necessary technologies and governance mechanisms for their exploitation including funding for this purpose. What is proposed is an “International Lunar Decade” to study lunar resources and to develop capabilities for exploiting such resources with the following goals:

  1. Develop a plan for the systematic international study of lunar resources including mineral, geographic, and orbital resources, assigning responsibilities to countries, firms, and organizations based on their capabilities determined through a competitive process.
  2. Develop an internationally shared and accessible database of lunar resources, including procedures for updating and accessing the database and preserving the security of information.
  3. Develop procedures for communications between different research groups, outposts and business incubators, tourist bases, and other facilities operating on the Moon.
  4. Establish a competitive process for providing access to specific firms seeking to exploit specific resources in specific locations on the Moon such that they can exploit the resources according to the principles set forth in Article 11, paragraph 7 of the Moon Treaty.
  5. Develop a Lunar Development Fund that coordinates the international development of key enabling technologies required to advance exploitation of the resources of the Moon as well as their use in pre-commercial, pilot applications, and business incubator facilities that may be located in specific regions of the Moon.
  6. Launch competitive calls open to research institutes and research oriented firms from around the world to develop technologies and operational consortia to develop required technologies for the exploitation of lunar resources.
  7. Develop specific programs, incorporating a competitive process that encourages excellence, to increase the space research and space technology development capabilities of states that have had limited opportunity thus far.
  8. Develop long-term financing mechanisms that can lead to the development of commercial-scale resource extraction, energy production, transport, and other facilities on the Moon and in cislunar space.
  9. Provide for mechanisms for conflict resolution including an appeals process to higher authorities.
  10. Develop an organizational structure for a Lunar Development Corporation to support the fulfillment of the above objectives within the general principles set forth in the Moon Treaty particularly as relates to the international regime referred to in Articles 11.
  11. Secure sufficient funding from participating governments and private sources such that the above objectives can be effectively fulfilled during the course of the International Lunar Decade.

The Moon Treaty provides an effective structure

The Moon Treaty, approved on December 5, 1979, by the General Assembly of the United Nations, became international law in 1984 when it was ratified by the fifth country fulfilling the requirements of the Convention on the Law of Treaties. The Moon Treaty is a more specific treatment of space law than the Outer Space Treaty that came into force in October 1967 to address the issue of exploitation of resources from the Moon and other planetary bodies. The Outer Space Treaty is generally considered the foundation of space law and has been ratified by 102 countries. The Moon Treaty has been ratified by only 15 countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Uruguay. Additionally, France, Guatemala, India, and Romania have signed but not ratified.

Some consider the Moon Treaty a “dead treaty” because no major spacefaring power has ratified the Treaty. While this has been debated extensively in the space law community, the reality is that none of the parties to the Moon Treaty can be considered a major spacefaring power. However, Austria, Australia, and Kazakhstan each have played a significant role in the development of the peaceful use of space. Additionally, Belgium, Netherlands, Mexico, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have major roles in the world economy.

Article 18 of the Moon Treaty establishes a procedure how any of the parties to the treaty can call on the Secretary General of the UN to convene a conference to discuss amending the Treaty or to establish the lunar international regime (LIR) called for in Article 11, paragraph 5. Such a conference can be called to launch the International Lunar Decade.

States Parties to this Agreement hereby undertake to establish an international regime, including appropriate procedures, to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible.

A Lunar International Regime (LIR) can be constructed that meets all requirements specified in the Moon Treaty and that fulfills requirements necessary for effective business development. Article 11, paragraph 7, defines the requirements of the LIR that is to be set up by the nations that are parties to the treaty, in the form of several main purposes:

Treaty language Meaning
(a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon Since the Moon is an environment unlike any on Earth, this requirement must include the development of new technologies as well as an approach that provides developers sufficient incentive to develop lunar resources. Additionally, to be orderly and safe, the regime must avoid a “gold rush” that can result in conflicts among parties or unsafe practices for those involved in the recovery of resources. The LIR must enable choices to be made among development approaches and also be able to impose standards on competitors seeking to develop the resources.
(b) The rational management of those resources Rational management of the resources suggests that recovery methods must be systematic, and use best practices and best available technologies working towards optimal recovery of resources or optimal use of resources including geographic and orbital resources.
(c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources At a minimum this requirement is about the prevention of monopoly powers over lunar resources. More broadly, the requirement suggests that opportunity to exploit lunar resources be made available to as broad a selection of competitors as is consistent with orderly and safe development and rational management of lunar resources. In view of the general principle of the Common Heritage of all mankind, expansion of opportunity would also suggest that countries that heretofore have not been spacefaring need to be given the opportunity to participate in a manner consistent with 7. (a) and 7. (b).
(d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration. Sharing of benefits can come only after there are benefits resulting from the development specified in 7. (a). While the interests and needs of developing nations are given priority emphasis is also placed on those countries that have contributed to the exploration of the Moon. Clearly those that invest in the development of the Moon need to see sufficient benefit that makes their investment justifiable in view of the risks involved as well as other opportunities likely to be available.

In addition to the requirements specified in this section of the treaty, several additional requirements must be met for the LIR to fulfill the role envisioned by the drafters of the Moon Treaty.

To develop the full range of required technologies , a systematic process is needed that encourages the development of key enabling technologies and encourages private firms to commercially develop products using these technologies.

The Moon is a commons with no state or private party owning any of it. The LIR must establish an identified way that a firm can apply its technology and management capabilities to specific resources in a specific location on the Moon that has sufficient resources to make recovery of them cost effective. In the Asteroid Mining Bank (see “The asteroid mining bank”, The Space Review, January 28, 2013), which could also have been called the Lunar Mining Bank, I proposed a claims office that would validate claims based on information provided by a firm seeking to extract lunar resources. The mining claim would have to contain information confirming that the firm has physically visited the proposed mining site and set identifying markers establishing the boundaries of the claim, and that it has the technical, managerial, and financial resources needed to work the claim. If the International Lunar Decade successfully develops a comprehensive database of lunar resources, then specific mining claims could be made available to qualified parties through an auction process, where initial payment would be made by the claimant to secure the mining claim for a period during which they could establish their mining operation or business to exploit a geographic resource for tourism or other purposes where specific locations determine the value of the resource.

While laboratory scale experiments of lunar resource recovery have been conducted under NASA or other space agency projects, no commercial-scale technology has been developed thus far because exploitation of lunar resources has not been considered feasible. To fulfill the requirements of effectively exploiting lunar resources, specific technologies need to be developed. There are many historical examples of the development of large-scale technologies, including the Apollo Program itself. However, these historical programs did not confront the need to develop technologies across a broad frontier of needs such as those presented by the industrial development of the Moon. Not only is there a need to consider technologies for the mining and processing of numerous kinds of materials in an alien setting, the provision of habitats for living and working on the Moon for extended periods of time requires new technologies to be developed. Closed-cycle ecosystem engineering is a discipline that has yet to emerge. Such technologies have only been developed in experimental settings such as Biosphere 2.

To develop the full range of technologies likely to be required for the industrial development of the Moon, a systematic process is needed that encourages the development of key enabling technologies and encourages private firms to commercially develop products using these technologies. In many cases such technologies will also have application to problems and markets on the Earth. Technology transfer processes should be encouraged to stimulate alternative, innovative uses of the R&D to derive the maximum benefit from that technology development. The European Union’s Horizon 2020 science and technology management and funding program encourages research and the development of competitive products for a future environment whose parameters cannot be accurately forecast. The LIR may need to include technology development elements analogous to the EU’s Horizon 2020 program within a long-range strategic development plan.

Addressing negative perceptions of the Treaty

Opponents of the Moon Treaty complain that it imposes taxes on businesses seeking to mine the Moon to benefit undeserving developing nations that have done nothing to further space travel, to explore the Moon, or to develop technologies for the exploitation of lunar resources. It should be noted that there is no mention in the Treaty of a tax to be paid to developing countries. The Moon Treaty calls for equitable sharing of the benefits in Article 11, paragraph 7(d). In addition, Article 4, paragraph 1 states:

The exploration and use of the moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development. Due regard shall be paid to the interests of present and future generations as well as to the need to promote higher standards of living and conditions of economic and social progress and development in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Benefits can only result from exploitation of the lunar resources if the parties that invest to exploit the resources can receive sufficient benefits to justify the investment, particularly bearing in mind the high risks involved in operating on the alien environment of the Moon. Article 11, paragraphs 7 (a), (b), and (c) make clear that exploitation of lunar resources needs to be orderly, rational, and conducted in a way that expands opportunity. If the benefits are relatively limited, such that the investor can justify the investment only if very little is shared with other parties, it may still be in the interests of humanity that at least the development has taken place and that the global economy has been stimulated in the process through a few jobs and the infusion of additional new technology. If the wealth generating opportunity is large, providing for an equitable sharing of the benefits should not discourage the recovery of the resources because if there is no development there, it can be no benefit to anyone.

The Moon Treaty remains a potentially effective mechanism for the development of an international regime for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon.

Another common criticism of the Moon Treaty stemming from the reference to the Heritage of Mankind doctrine is that it will inevitably lead to a massive UN bureaucracy that not only takes the hard-earned benefits from those that developed the requisite technologies and took the risks, but that also stunts opportunities with unnecessary red tape. The Moon Treaty does not require such a bureaucracy nor does it demand that those that bore the risks and developed the technologies give up their wealth. There is no inherent requirement in the Moon Treaty that demands unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape. The international regime can be designed to minimize bureaucratic impediments. Numerous examples existm such as Singapore, where government reforms have produced a business environment conducive to business. The international regime can be designed on such principles yet follow the requirements specified in Article 11, paragraph 7(a) (“The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon”) and 7(b) (“The rational management of those resources.”)

Possible implementation, sequence, and timing

Article 18 of the Moon Treaty provides for a process whereby one third of the nations who are parties to the treary can request that the Secretary General of the UN convene a conference to consider revisions to the treaty, including specification of the international regime. Since the Moon Treaty has been ratified by only 15 countries, the significance of the international regime can be broadened by involving spacefaring powers that have not yet ratified the treaty with a view that if the international regime that is developed is effective, then these spacefaring countries, including the US, would have no reason to not ratify or accede to the treaty. If the result does not fully satisfy the requirements or political realities of the US, it could still be positioned to participate within the limits of its interests.

At this time as the possibility of exploitation of the resources of the Moon becomes increasingly feasible, there is a golden moment for either the US and/or the EU to exercise space leadership and to call for an International Lunar Decade in the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia, this November. The details of the implementation of the International Lunar Decade, including the specifications of the international regime for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon, could be developed for presentation to the G20 Summit that is planned to take place in Turkey in 2015. The development of the Moon is an economic issue of great consequence to the entire world. Since the G20 has emerged as the primary summit for the discussion of economic policy, it is appropriate that this matter be considered there.


The Moon Treaty remains a potentially effective mechanism for the development of an international regime for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon, providing a mechanism for the equitable sharing of the benefits between those nations that invested, took risks, and developed the means to reach the Moon, and to develop capabilities for exploiting the natural resources that are there, and those nations that historically did not do so. Since many private and governmental missions are now planned to go to the Moon from an increasing number of countries, with the intent of studying the resources of the Moon and their potential exploitation, it is now becoming necessary to address the development of the required international regime. While some are opposed to the Moon Treaty, most are indifferent because mining the Moon has not been a topic of real concern. Before the Moon Treaty is thrown out as a historical relic, it needs to be reassessed, particularly since technological developments can emerge extremely fast. The absence of an international regime that reflects the interests of the US could put the US at a significant disadvantage in the coming decades in space. While the US is not a ratifying power to the Moon Treaty, the US can exercise space leadership and call for the International Lunar Decade and for the development of the necessary international regime for the Moon.


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