Concern is growing in parts of the US business and scientific communities that private corporations might be locked out of economic development of deep space, including the moon.
At issue is whether the United States should become a party to the so-called United Nations "Moon Treaty."
The treaty, officially the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, was approved by the UN General Assembly in late 1979. After formal ratification by five nations the treaty would have the effect of international law.
That's precisely the rub. Some American business and scientific groups are arguing that the agreement could seriously hamper the ability of private companies to compete in outer space.
United Technologies, for example, a conglomerate including such major companies as Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Sikorsky Aircraft, and the Otis group, is taking out newspaper advertisements throughout the US arguing that the UN treaty would have the effect of "socializing the moon."
The L-5 Society, a Tucson, Ariz.-based citizens group made up of prominent scientists, engineers, and writers, is carrying the fight against the treaty to the US Senate, which will have to approve it if it is eventually signed by the Carter administration.
The treaty provides that the resources of space be developed as the "common heritage of mankind." Moreover, eventual development of space would be under the control of some form of yet undetermined international agency.
According to Leigh S. Ratiner, a Washington lawyer who is the lobbyist for L- 5, the common-heritage provision could seriously "imperil" space development by "private enterprise," since it is more than likely that the international space agency would be controlled by third-world nations within the UN.
What, Mr. Ratiner asks, is the reason for the "haste" for such a treaty now, given the overwhelming US technological lead in space?
"There is no race under way to grasp, exploit, or hold resources" in space, he argues.
Mr. Ratiner was a US negotiator for several years with the UN Law of the Sea Conference, and helped draft the somewhat similar "common heritage" provisions in that treaty, which pertains to seabed resources and other issues concerning the world's oceans. Opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which the US has not yet ratified, argue that third-world nations are trying to gain control of strategic ocean minerals.
"There are just enormous amounts of legal questions about this [moon] treaty, " says Keith Henson, chairman of the L-5 Society committee raising funds to fight the moon treaty.
The 3,500-member society derives its unusual name from a point in space behind the moon where scientists believe a freely orbiting space colony could exist.
The treaty, Mr. Henson notes, says that not only are the "moon, other planets , and asteroids" subject to the "common heritage" of mankind but also "trajectories to and from those bodies, plus orbits around them."
But that, he insists, could mean that it would be possible for an international UN space agency to deny the right of access to space colonies by private groups or private companies.
Further, he says, the treaty provides for "the right of inspection" (searches) in space. In contrast, he says, the US Constitution spells out definite safeguards against unreasonable search and seizure, a concept not honored by many UN members. One concern of Mr. Henson's is that research or trade secrets of firms working in space could be divulged through international inspection.
Lee Kimball, a consultant to the United Methodist Law of the Sea Project and a supporter of the treaty, notes that the Antarctica agreements provide for rights of inspection. She says that development of space for the "common heritage" of mankind need not prevent a "legitimate role" for private enterprise in space.
She points out that many third-world nations are eagerly setting up joint ventures with private US companies for development of resources within their own nations. That, she reckons, might well occur in deep space itself.
To date, two nations, France and Chile, have signed (but not yet formally ratified) the treaty.
Within the US government, an interagency task force is reviewing the treaty and is expected to report to the secretary of state by May 1.
Meantime, Sens. Frank Church (D) of Idaho and Jacob J. Javits (R) of New York , ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have urged the State Department to delay a US decision to sign the document at this point, pending further revisions.
Opposition in the Senate is believed strong enough to prevent approval.