Some Legal and Policy Ramifications of Newt Gingrich’s Plan to Colonize the Moon

Posted in: International Law

Speaking last week to an audience on Florida’s “space coast,” Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich vowed to establish a colony on the Moon by the end of his “second term,” i.e., by the end of 2020.  What’s more, Gingrich made clear that he wanted the lunar outpost to be a U.S. project, expressing openness to the possibility of statehood for the Moon colony upon its reaching the necessary minimum population.

For Americans who live on planet Earth, the speech may have seemed to be simply one more piece of evidence that Gingrich’s reputation as an idea man is at best a mixed blessing.  Or, as former Republican Senator and 1996 Presidential nominee Bob Dole recently observed about Gingrich’s time in the House of Representatives: “Gingrich had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall.”

But before succumbing to the temptation to mock Gingrich’s grandiosity—which he expressly embraced in the space coast speech, comparing himself to Lincoln, among others—it is worth asking whether there is anything to Gingrich’s plan.  Although the particulars of the Gingrich Moon-colonization plan are flawed, the basic concept is worth discussing.

Technological Limits

Before evaluating the legal and policy ramifications of Moon colonization, we might ask whether it is technologically feasible.  Promising in 2012 to establish a Moon colony by 2020 looks quite similar to President Kennedy’s 1961 goal of putting a man on the Moon by 1970.  Given that we were able to accomplish Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon using 1960s technology, it might seem like a relatively small step to colonize the Moon using modern technology.

And yet that seemingly small step may require something more like a giant leap.  To establish a substantial colony on the Moon would mean transporting at least a few dozen people and a great deal of equipment and supplies.

Such a task poses two broad categories of technological challenges.  First, engineers would need to fashion the necessary equipment for living in an environment with no atmosphere.  Experiments with closed living spaces, such as Earthbound biodomes, and the decades-long experience with the international space station, provide a good base of knowledge on this score, but we are still nowhere near where we would need to be in order to place a self-sustaining colony on the Moon.

The second challenge is simply one of transportation.  All of those colonists, their equipment, and their supplies would require spacecraft that could carry a payload many times larger than the payloads of the Apollo rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.  Here too, we have made advances since the Nixon Administration, but, of course, the basic physics have not changed.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to push a human being out of the Earth’s gravitational grasp.  Cost is a rough proxy for difficulty, and so we can gain some insight into the challenge by noting that Virgin Galactic is currently charging $200,000 per person for what will be just a few hours of sub-orbital space flight.

Of course, Virgin Galactic is a private company that does not have the resources of the federal government, but then, with the Space Shuttle having recently flown its last mission, the United States currently has no operational means of transporting people into space.  Gingrich pretty clearly meant to signal that he would like to change that state of affairs, but he has not said that he thinks the government should get back into the business of launching humans into space.  Nor has he said how, as a tax-cutter, he would pay for colonization.  In his speech, and later, during Thursday’s debate, Gingrich merely offered that government could provide financial incentives for private space-exploration firms.

None of the above is to say that colonizing the Moon is technologically impossible.  But at the very least it is a large and costly challenge.  When NASA most recently addressed the issue, it proposed building an outpost to be occupied for six-month periods, not a whole self-sustaining colony.  And even that much more limited idea was subject to withering criticism.

Legal Obstacles to Colonizing the Moon

Suppose that scientists and engineers were to rapidly overcome the technological obstacles to colonizing the Moon.  Still, there remains an important legal obstacle.

Some Moon-colonization enthusiasts have noted that the United States is not a signatory to the U.N. Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.  Thus, establishment of a lunar colony that sought to assert U.S. sovereignty, is not constrained by Article 11.2 of that agreement, which provides: “The Moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

However, the United States did sign and ratify an earlier treaty that appears to include the same limitation.  The Outer Space Treaty (as it is popularly known) was ratified by the United States in 1967.  Its Article II categorically states: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

To be clear, neither treaty bans space colonization per se.  What the treaties both forbid is space colonization for the purpose of establishing national sovereignty.  Yet achieving statehood for a U.S. lunar colony—as Gingrich has proposed—would necessarily entail that the colony would be under U.S. sovereignty, thus violating our obligation under the Outer Space Treaty.

Well, so what?, readers may ask.  The United States has withdrawn from treaties in the past.  Why couldn’t it also withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty if that treaty stands in the way of making the Moon the fifty-first state?

The short answer is that here, as in other instances, we should adhere to a treaty that limits our freedom of action because of its reciprocal effect on other signatories.  Like the U.S., neither China nor Russia is a signatory to the more recent U.N. agreement on the Moon, but all three countries have signed onto the Outer Space Treaty.  If the U.S. renounces that treaty, other countries may rapidly do so, too.  And if the U.S. loses the race to build a colony on the Moon, then we will cede the Moon entirely to rivals.  Or, worse yet, if the U.S. and rivals stake competing sovereign claims to parts of the Moon, we could even court armed conflict on the Moon.  Of course, neither result is remotely desirable.

Thus, a distinctively U.S. lunar colony, as a sovereign territory, is both illegal and a bad idea.  But an international lunar colony may stand on a different footing.

The Kernel of Sense in the Gingrich Proposal

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day and even a lunatic may have the kernel of a good idea.  What is the kernel of sense in former Speaker Gingrich’s latest silliness?  Simply this: Colonization of space could hold the key to the long-term survival of human civilization.

With a little tweaking, we can reimagine Gingrich’s lunar colony as an outpost of humanity, not just the United States.  If so, we might think of it as a kind of lifeboat for our species.

Environmental catastrophe, an asteroid strike, or a nuclear war could some day render Earth uninhabitable.  That would be a tragedy of unparalleled proportions for the people and other animals then living on the planet, of course, and space colonization would not offer a way out for any but a tiny fraction of our current population.

Yet such a global catastrophe would not only mean the ends of billions of individual lives.  It could also mean the end of humanity itself.  If we manage to establish self-sustaining colonies on other worlds before disaster strikes, however, then our species, if not most of its extant members, can survive.  Thinking about lunar colonization today could preserve our species in the future.

Recent discoveries of substantial quantities of water on the Moon make it a potentially hospitable target for eventual colonization.  And even if the Moon ultimately proves to be an inferior home for colonies, as compared to Mars or one of Saturn’s moons, much of the work that would go into developing technology for extraterrestrial colonization of the Moon would likely be equally useful on other planets or their moons.

To be sure, thinking about how to ensure that our species survives might lead us to conclude that lunar colonization is a huge and costly distraction.  Perhaps the resources that a President Gingrich would devote to colonizing the Moon should, instead, be devoted to developing technologies to track and deflect comets and asteroids of the sort that have led to past mass extinctions.  Species-saving efforts might also be devoted to reversing global warming and building world peace.

The important point is not so much that we should colonize the Moon.  Rather, it is that we should think about the reasons we might have for colonizing the Moon, and whether those reasons might instead—or additionally—justify other urgent actions here on Earth.  If Newt Gingrich’s lunar politics leads to a conversation about these matters, then his quixotic campaign will have done some good.

Posted in: International Law