The Moon has become the next frontier. The AUS has committed to returning human astronauts to the Moon by the end of the next decade. China has hinted that it intends to go to the Moon also. Countries, including the United States and China, India, Europe, and Japan, have either sent robotic probes into lunar orbit or are about to do so.
And another question has arisen. What shall we do with the Moon once we get there?
Thoughts of scientific exploration, commercial exploitation, and training for future exploration, say of Mars, abound. All good ideas, but they imply something beyond short term forays as occurred during the Apollo program. They imply a permanent residency of humans on the Moon.
A lunar settlement, probably located at one of the lunar poles where scientists believe ice exists in permanently shadowed craters, would be a center of science and commerce. Lunar geologists and astronomers would work cheek to jowl with helium 3 miners and lunar tour guides. There would even be a government of some kind, with lawyers and bureaucrats, to sort out disputes and to pass and supervise laws and regulations.
If the lunar settlement is to be more than just an Antarctica style science base, some provision would have to be made about private property rights. And there is the rub.
The Outer Space Treaty, governs national activities in space, is silent about private property rights. The treaty does, however, forbid nations from making sovereign claims on territory on other worlds. National sovereignty is the traditional mechanism for guaranteeing private property.
In a recent article in the Journal of Air Law and Commerce, Alan Wasser and Douglas Jobes suggested a way around this ambiguity. Wasser and Jobes propose that certain countries recognize in advance the right of a privately built and owned lunar settlement to dispose of private property at and around the site of the settlement and to promise to maintain and defend that right.
This arrangement would allow for a private lunar settlement to earn back the initial investment required to build the settlement by selling lunar real estate around the settlement. It would provide a powerful incentive, claim the authors of the article, for private, commercial development on the Moon.
Current NASA planning suggests a four person lunar base to be more or less permanently occupied by around 2025 or so. The idea advanced by Wasser and Jobes is of a grander scale entirely. Instead of a tiny research station situated on the edge of the Aitkin Basin at the lunar South Pole, they suggest the possibility of a community, a town if you will on the Moon, with all the implications of such an undertaking.
One of the criticisms of NASA's return to the Moon effort is that it seems to be little more than a continuation of Apollo, with only highly trained, government paid astronauts allowed to directly participate. But if a private lunar settlement could be enabled, along the lines Wasser and Jobe suggest, the pool of possible lunar settlers would be widened considerably.