Why I’m Not Quaking In My Boots: Part I

There’s been a lot of discussion recently, and plenty of silly fearmongering about a Reuter’s article claiming that China is going to send a man to the moon by 2017. I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the merits of the article. Well, other than to say that an translation from a report by what many consider to be a Chinese tabloid, quoting a scientist involved in China’s robotic lunar exploration program, who has been seriously misquoted in the past, as unnoficially saying that China wants to put a man on the Moon by 2017 seems to leave me just a wee bit skeptical.

However, even if they really do plan on putting a man on the moon by then, I feel that it’s hardly the matter of alarm, or any sort of legimitate justification for a wasteful repeat of the 60’s Moon Race. Mark on the other hand seems to disagree:

I’m sorry, but I would rather not have to fight a war in order to get back to the Moon. I want us there first, even if it is just a dozen government employees at first, to make sure that others will be able to follow.

There was also this little gem:

Abolish NASA, stop all public space exploration, and one might eventually see private space explorers reach the Moon. But in my opinion they are likely to find the Chinese there waiting to greet them with a no tresspassing sign. Then it will not matter how clever those future entrepeneurs are. The Chinese, socialists that they are, will have the guns.

This fearmongering seems so unrealistic, nutty, paranoid, and tin-foil-hattish, that I barely know where to start. But being the long-winded fellow that I am, I’ll bring up a few brief points.

The Legitimate Route
First, let’s discuss a little about the current state of space proprety law, and how one might go about establishing the functional equivalence of a “claim” on a given piece of space property. We can discuss less legitimate methods later, and why I think they aren’t any more workable, but let’s start with the basics.

[Caveat: You should probably verify what I’m about to say with a bona fide space law expert, like Wayne White, James Dunstan, Rosanna Sattler, or one of the other many contributors over at grokspace.com before taking any of this as gospel truth. I’ll do my best to rehash and summarize my understanding of what they presented, but at that link you should be able to get access to the real deal.]

From the space property law discussion we had at the Return to the Moon conference last July, the key to establishing the exclusive right to use a given piece of lunar property is the “non-interference” portion of the OST. The OST explicity precludes the right for any country to make territorial claims on the Moon. The only legitimate way a country could get around this would be through this clause. The clause states that spacecraft (and presumably hardware or people) put into space by a given country may not be interfered with by any other country. For example, if the US orbits a geostationary satellite, another country like Canada couldn’t legally do any of the following to it:

  • Use a tug to move it
  • Intentionally cause it any damage (and if they accidentally damaged it they would be liable)
  • Put another satellite up that blocks the comsat from being able to get solar power
  • Put another satellite between the comsat and its intended market thereby blocking it off

I’m sure you could think up other examples, but that’s just to get the general idea out there. Now if you look at say one of the Apollo lunar landers, or Lunokhod landers, similar rules would apply. You wouldn’t be allowed to do anything that could reasonably damage them, nobody other than the US government could move them. In fact, a reasonable stance would be to not even touch them if you don’t have explicity approval from the owner.

Ok, with that little bit of background, let’s look at a couple of other related ideas. The moon is a dusty environment, and that dust is abrasive, and potentially damaging. Activities that kick dust onto existing equipment of other nations would probably be precluded under the “non-interference” clause we just discussed. When you land a spacecraft, or drive a rover, it’ll kick up dust for a certain distance. Fortunately, since the Moon has no real atmosphere, and all dust travels in a ballistic trajectory, it’s probably quite probable that some physics based legal guidlines will evolve over time for how close you can land a given ship or drive a given rover to someone else’s stuff, depending on the intervening terrain.

Gaming The System With Robotic Landers
This appears, at least on the surface, a way that a nefarious group could block others from being able to land on large swaths of the Moon would be to carpet that area with a bunch of tiny landers, spaced close enough to not allow any other landing sites. If say the minimal safe landing distance was determined to be 500m, you’d “only” need a couple dozen to maybe a couple hundred of these things to completely block off even one decent sized polar crater/peak of eternal light region. You would land them say 525m away from each other in a grid (if you landed them less than 500m apart, and they were still functional, you’d be undermining your claim that you need at least a 500m spacing, now wouldn’t you?), probably hexagonally arranged.

However, if you just landed a bunch of dumb landers that weren’t designed to do anything after they landed, it might be tougher to get a court to actually accept your claim (AIUI, courts don’t like people trying to blatantly game the system like this. In such a situation, you’d probably have to show how landing nearby would actually cause you real damage in order to get them to side with you). So, now you’re talking landers that have to have at least something on them that does something after landing. Say telescopes, transonders, landing lights, scientific equipment, something. So now you have to land dozens or hundreds of these things to cover even one tiny fraction of just one interesting part of the Moon.

Even if you did manage to land all of those succesfully, even that wouldn’t be good enough. All someone else would need to do would be land far enough away from them to not “interfere”, and then drive in and use the land between them. The first commercial manned missions might even do the Chinese a favor, and put up fences around each of these landers with “Beware Landers are Property of Chinese Government” signs, and padlocked gates (they’d then give the padlocks to the Chinese government for safe keeping).

Seriously, this just wouldn’t work. Let’s look at something more realistic: manned facilities.

Homesteading as a Route to Staking a Claim
A much more realistic, and thorough way to use the non-interference rule to stake the equivalence of a claim would be to build a substantial manned settlement or unmanned outpost. You’d probably place landing spots far away from the main hardware, with solar cells and radiators also placed a bit away from the main traffic routes. With of course some improved roads and simple power lines linking everything together. Add in some radio repeaters/landing transponders, some lights strategically placed, and all the roads, sheds, and other outbuildings for even a tiny settlement, and you could quickly block off several square kilometers. In fact, this would likely be the way people seriously approach lunar property rights. If you look at it in this light, it appears that current space law actually favors the equivalence of “homesteading”, which IMO is a very good thing. Actually requiring people to make improvements to a given chunk of real estate before they can exlude others from it is a good thing. It keeps those who aren’t really able to use the land away, and awards those who actually take enough effort do do things for real.

Going back to the evil dictatorship bit, once again this approach is utterly impractical because in order to block off even just the valuable parts of the moon, you’d have to improve thousands of square kilometers of the lunar surface. This would imply thousands of people on the luanr surface. Does Mark seriously believe that the Chinese space program (that has to date only flown three astronauts over the course of several years) is somehow going to put thousands of people on the lunar surface and millions of tons of hardware there between now and when a private space company could get there? The idea seems laughable to say the least.

They might, just might, get a tiny outpost planted by then, but nothing substantial enough to allow them to legitimately block others. In fact, such an outpost would probably be a welcomed trading partner and additional customer for other private settlements and private space transportation companies.

Anyhow, someone might be able to use this info to come up with a better way that some nefarious group could legitimately block others from landing on the Moon, but at least I’m convinced that none of those approaches are practical. Next post on this topic, I’ll discuss some of the other, less legitimate ways a dictatorship could go about it, and why I think they wouldn’t work either.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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10 Responses to Why I’m Not Quaking In My Boots: Part I

  1. Mark says:

    A ground to ground missile battery on the tiny outpost would effectively control access to the Moon, at least where alt.spacers are concerned. That’s when we have to go to war which, as you may recall, I wish to avoid.

  2. Ed says:

    “Does Mark seriously believe that the Chinese space program (that has to date only flown three astronauts over the course of several years) is somehow going to put thousands of people on the lunar surface and millions of tons of hardware there between now and when a private space company could get there?”

    To be fair to Mark, the Chinese have so far orbited three more people than all the alt.space companies put together. Now, that doesn’t mean that they will put thousands on the moon before alt.space companies can get there, but it sure implies that there would be more Chinese people on the moon than there would be alt.spacers, unless the alt.space community can leapfrog the Chinese program.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A ground to ground battery on the moon would control squat.

    All you’d need to shotgun it out of existance is a half ton of assorted ball bearings, and a rocket with enough dV (a Delta II or Falcon V is ample) to put them on a nice and lethal TLI trajectory.

  4. Mark says:

    One could easily mount a BMD on the Moon against anything launched from Earth, considering the long transit times for an offensive missile. It could also be hardened with regolith until needed.

  5. Kelly Starks says:

    Jon, I find it bizarre that in response to “The Chinese will get there first and hold the moon by force”, you respond with something about space property law??!!

    What possible difference would the UN treaties and space property law have on anything related to a military conquest? I can’t see the Chinese caring enough to hold all the moon by force, but if by some inconceivable twist they did — there‚Äôs no possible way space property law could impact or affect them. The UN has no enforcement abilities; no one else has enough to retake the moon. You could (HA!) assume some significant political pressure could be brought to bear on them – but given the non reaction to their conquest and systematic dismantaling of Tibet, I wouldn’t bet on it.

  6. Nathan Koren says:

    The Chinese have profited enormously from adhering to international treaties and norms — this is what makes them such a valuable and reliable source of trade and place for investment. Moreover, they have not truly been “communists” since a certain 1979 speech involving black and white cats (look it up). What they are is pragmatists. Unless a treaty-breaking military takeover of the moon would somehow offset the hundreds of billions of dollars of trade and foriegn investment which they would lose as a consequence, you can be quite certain that they have no interest in doing so.

  7. Mark says:

    Nathan, I don’t think you fully grasp the scenario. In it, the Chinese are not “taking over” the Moon but are claiming that they are “protecting it” from the evil capitalists (that’s us) who would rape its resources. That stance would actually be seen with great favor, IMHO, in the Third World, certain parts of Europe, and even the American left.

  8. Sam Dinkin says:

    It would be delightful to have a war on the Moon. It would be a good way to spark development. I don’t see the Chinese spending $80 billion on the Moon much less $10 trillion or so to plant a base with 5000 km anti-spacecraft range and the techs to operate it. Unless there is an alternative way to get to the Moon than big dumb government programs, I see the Chinese as less likely to lift a finger to take the Moon than Quimoy or Matsu off their coast.

  9. Mark says:

    Sam, where does the ten trillion dollar figure come from?

  10. Kelly Starks says:

    > The Chinese have profited enormously from
    >adhering to international treaties and norms —

    And even more from flagrently violating them. Seldom with any real political cost.

    Sam Dinkin said…
    > It would be delightful to have a war on the Moon. It
    > would be a good way to spark development.


    >I don’t see the Chinese spending $80 billion on
    > the Moon much less $10 trillion or so to plant a
    > base with 5000 km anti-spacecraft range and
    >the techs to operate it.==

    Sam theres no reason it would take 100’s of billions, much less trillions of dollars to set up a big base on the moon. It would cost NASA that because they have a lot of districts to pay off, but the actuall cost to field a lunar base (if thats really your priority) is far under $80 billion.

    The question is would they for some reason.

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