The Next Global Turf War? The Moon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the U.S. is positioning itself to privatize space.
Countless sci-fi novels, shows and movies have imagined humanity leaving Earth behind for the blank slate of space — a chance to not repeat its mistakes. But now that corporations are joining countries in zero gravity after SpaceX launched the first private sector manned flight in May, will peace actually be preserved outside this stratosphere, even as wars rage on within it?
The global consensus about space neutrality is eroding — fast. Until recently, the moon was widely considered a global commons across humanity akin to the open seas or Antarctica, not meant to be owned (or exploited) by any single nation or entity. But on April 6, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump released an executive order refuting that idea and suggesting a desire to pave the path for lunar dominance by American industries. His decision continues four decades of U.S. presidents scaling back their commitment to a neutral space, including, most recently, the 2015 U.S. Space Act that gave American companies the right to strip asteroids for profit. Other nations, such as Japan and Luxembourg, have signaled support for privatizing space as well.
There is a bit of a first-mover advantage.
Scott Schackelford, Indiana University
Such measures fly directly in the face of the long-standing “Moon Treaty” established by the European Union, which 18 nations have signed, among them Mexico and Australia. The United States, China and Russia have all held out from adding their signatures, each likely believing they stand too much to gain if they can quickly capitalize on being among the stars (although both China and Russia also fear a privatized space controlled by the U.S. could be weaponized against them).
“There is a bit of a first-mover advantage,” says Scott Schackelford, a business law professor at Indiana University who studies space policy.
If interstellar moon travel eventually becomes as affordable and routine as flights across the globe, one could easily foresee strange conflicts over our skies. A future where an Amazon space base competes with a Google one, or where Russians are accused of hacking the Trump Space Command Wi-Fi password (which, incredibly, was simply the word “incredible”).
Mining raw materials, such as silicon for solar panels, oxygen for rocket fuel or helium for fusion reactors, could become commonplace. And where private or nationalistic commercial interests are involved, it’s not hard to see that military conflict could very well follow. “Without better coordination, it seems likely that eventually peaceful, sustainable development of off-world resources will give way to competing claims,” Schackelford says.