Concerns about possible gaps in US oversight and legal questions about proper use of the moon have rocketed to the forefront. Landers built by private firms and emerging space powers are expected in the next few years to join the US flag and other vestiges of past programmes to the moon. Other initiatives could include using the moon as a site for capsules of human remains, advertising sports drinks, and maybe even a Christian cross made of the moon’s own dirt. “We need to be careful we’re not contaminating it – not just with biological and chemical contamination but with litter,” said an attorney on international space law.
Among the payloads aboard a recent private moon mission by US company Astrobotic – which failed to reach the moon’s surface – were capsules of human ashes and a can of Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat. The exact purpose of the can was unclear. Under US law, those items and anything else can go to the moon, as long as the US Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies certify a rocket payload’s launch off Earth does not “jeopardize public health and safety … US national security … or international obligations of the US.”
The issue will gain more attention as the Nasa leans heavily on private companies to cut the costs of its trips to the moon. At present, there are no US laws or standards outlining what is acceptable on the celestial body’s surface. Lawyers with space-law expertise worry that the absence of regulations could pit US companies against other countries operating on the lunar surface or spark international disputes over which private endeavours could be considered land appropriation or claims of sovereignty. The lack of guidelines has some eying the possibilities. Justin Park, a US entrepreneur, wants to build a Christian cross on the moon as big as a two-story building and made of hardened lunar dirt, an estimated $1 billion undertaking he has discussed with US lawmakers. “Nobody owns the moon,” Park said.
Nasa officials who aided Astrobotic’s mission said they have no control over what companies put on their landers, and that payload standards could be created in the future. “You’ll see that evolve over time,” said Chris Culbert, head of Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services. “The first step is a successful landing.”