There was a time when people could sing without fear of contradiction, "The moon belongs to everyone." Not anymore. Today nations and private mining companies are casting anxious glances at one another as they jockey for the best starting positions in the next Great Moon Race. They are getting ready for that day in the not-too-distant future when advancing space technology opens up new opportunities for exploiting the mineral wealth believed to lie beneath the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.
Does the moon still belong to everyone? The United Nations General Assembly says yes, the moon and its resources are the "common heritage" mankind. And it is this ideal that the UN hopes to establish as international law with its new "Moon Treaty." Article IV holds out this bright promise: "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."
Similar in many ways to the Law of the Sea Treaty which 150 nations have been seeking to hammer out for more than seven years, the Moon Treaty is an attempt to set some ground rules for earthlings living and working on the moon and other celestial bodies. Among other things, it would ensure that the moon is used only for peaceful purposes, that its environment is protected, that human life is safeguarded there, and that nations exchange information and cooperate in their scientific investigation of the moon and the planets.
But, as in the case of the Law of the Sea, it is how to implement the "common heritage" concept that has stirred the greatest controversy. Much like the sea treaty's effort in respect to ocean-floor minerals, the moon agreement would create an international body to regulate mining on the moon. The wording of the treaty (officially called the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies) makes clear that both the interests of developing third-world countries, without the know-how and technology to do the mining, and the interests of the wealthier ones, whose investments and hard work make such exploitation possible, must be taken into account.
Despite such clear assurances in the language of the treaty itself and in the discussions leading up to its approval in the UN General Assembly, certain mining and other business interests in the US remain convinced that, if the US signs and the Senate ratifies the treaty, opportunities for economic development of space by business firms will be stifled. But the Moon Treaty does not minimize the importance of giving business sufficient incentives for making the huge investments needed for lunar and other space ventures. It would be counterproductive for companies to be deprived of the opportunity to receive a fair return on their investment.
However, this need not bar the participation of third-world nations, who have every right to share in the moon's bounty. There are many precedents for rich and poor nations cooperating and sharing the rewards of joint business ventures. In the field of telecommunications, for instance, Intelsat, Intersputnik, and Inmarsat are cited as examples of nations expending large sums on space projects whose benefits have been shared with other nations. Many multinational firms also have joined third-world countries in common ventures for developing the countries' own resources. And Antarctica offers still another instance of nations, some with claims to the area's minerals that are not recognized by others, cooperating and sharing in the exploration of that frozen frontier's natural resources.
When the Senate gets around to the Moon Treaty, it will need to weigh long-term foreign policy considerations along with domestic business interests. In the final analysis, the US must recognize that, if it hopes to maintain good relations with the rest of the world, it will have to demonstrate some willingness to accommodate the wishes of the third world on the moon as elsewhere. Certainly an equitable sharing among big and small nations, with private enterprise playing a key role in developing mankind's common heritage, ought to be possible. The stakes are too high not to give the Moon Treaty a chance to work.