There are two ways for India to land on the moon, both involve Bengaluru. The hard way is to entrust the mission to the city-headquartered ISRO, which will use the GSLV Mk-III rocket to take Chandrayaan-2 to the moon. The easier way is to hint to Bengaluru’s intrepid real-estate developers that they can build tech parks and apartments on the moon, and they’ll somehow get there on their own.
Thanks to the rush and imagination Chandrayaan-2 mission has triggered, a day is not far off when Bengaluru developers will advertise apartments just 360K kilometres from the Infosys Campus. Their buyers are quite used to not getting legal title, water or electricity. They are also used to lunar craters and dust on streets outside. Furthermore, the availability of abundant parking space will make Chandra Layout a desirable place to acquire property. Commute times will be shorter. We can expect local innovation to jerry-rig tractors to carry tank-loads of water to the moon, even as Swiggy, Big Basket and Dunzo install rocket boosters on their motorcycles for home-delivery. And no one will bother about solid waste management.
But seriously, the prospect of permanent stations on the moon makes the Chandrayaan-2 mission of strategic interest. Although its launch has been postponed for now, when it eventually lands on the moon, India will have taken a substantial step towards extra-terrestrial settlement. “Settlement” might appear to be too strong a word to use for the initial stations that humans will set up on the moon, but they will put us on that path. In fact, Chandrayaan-1’s advances in the search for lunar water has accentuated the interest in moon stations.
The major space players have plans. The United States intends to resume human landings on the moon ahead of setting up a permanent base. So is Russia. A European initiative is designing a permanent human settlement that will take the form of an international, collaborative Moon Village. Earlier this year, the China National Space Administration (CSNA) announced that it will build a research station near the moon’s south pole. That should cause us to wonder how many dashed lines Beijing will have to draw to claim the moon as its sovereign territory, because, as we all know, there are ancient Chinese texts that say so.
If China’s recent aggressiveness and constructions in the South China Sea offer us contemporary insights into Beijing’s possible future actions in space, the history of European colonisation and American settlement teaches us other lessons on how humans — not just the Americans, Europeans and Chinese, but Indians too — might behave when we establish ourselves on the moon.
To be sure, international law as it stands today — in the form of the Outer Space Treaty – prohibits any country from claiming sovereign territory on the moon and other celestial bodies. This has not stopped entrepreneurs, some merely eccentric, others unscrupulous, from arguing that the Treaty nevertheless does not prohibit private corporations and individuals from owning private property on the moon. These claims, however, are legally flawed because there are no stateless corporations and citizens. You are always under national jurisdiction.
Even if a state were to close one eye and allow a private enterprise to land on the moon and assert property rights, it would be in violation of international law. Some legal experts believe that the ban on national ownership of celestial bodies is not water-tight, as smaller objects like asteroids and comets might not fit that definition.
That’s as far as current international law goes. From the perspective of geopolitics — or more correctly ‘astropolitics’— occupation is nine-tenths of ownership. The remaining one-tenth is power. In other words, if someone were to occupy a spot on the moon or an asteroid, and has the power to defend it, then that’s that. You can only throw international law at countries that do not have the power to do anything about it. If the United States were to declare half the moon as its sovereign territory tomorrow, it is likely to get away with it. International law is a delicate ribbon to tie the hands of powers who see tied hands in their interest. If calculation of their interests changes, the ribbon won’t matter.
For the moment, there is consensus that space and celestial bodies are commons that everyone can use, but no one can own. This consensus holds because access to space is expensive and difficult, and there’s little out there that is of value to us on earth. If these conditions change, then we should either expect the over-exploitation and ‘the tragedy of the commons’, or the establishment of property rights.
At this time, Helium-3 is considered to be a resource that could possibly be profitably extracted from the moon and transported back to earth and used to fuel nuclear fusion reactors. The economics of this are unclear, but it offers us the hope of a clean source of energy that doesn’t depend on cartels and odious governments. It is estimated that there’s a lot of Helium-3 on the moon, so there might not be an immediate contention for it, but human record of cooperative resource management is poor. It is unclear how the rules of the game will change once the value of lunar presence improves.
Meanwhile, be wary of firms selling you title to land on the moon, because those are perhaps worth only the paper they are printed on. Sorry, you are unlikely to be able to have a picnic on the moon with your friends any time soon. As for the 3 BHK apartment, with gym, swimming pool and landscaped garden, I’m afraid it’s just a lunatic proposition.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.