Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Q:Who owns the moon?

By Margaret McLean

After a 22-hour ride through the 3.7-billion-year-old, lava-gorged Taurus-Littrow Valley, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt parked their rover near the Apollo 17 Lunar module, mounted the steps, secured the door, and headed back home to Earth. They were the last humans to leave footprints on the moon.

Now some 26 years later, we are beginning to think about a return trip to Earth's sole natural satellite. What draws us back to the pockmarked lunar surface?

As the century wanes, interest in lunar travel comes not so much from NASA as from the private sector. The passion of the 1960s and '70s for discovery and dominance in space has given way to the possibility of extraterrestrial profit-from mining the moon's surface to building an out-of-this-world resort. These opportunities have become more realistic since Lunar Prospector's 1998 discovery of water ice on the moon. Water is not only necessary for human survival but its hydrogen and oxygen molecules also make terrific rocket fuel.

"Primarily, the existence of water opens people's minds about going to the moon," said Alan Binder, Prospector's chief scientist, in an interview with Discover magazine. "It doesn't seem like such a foreign place. It's like finding gold. California could have been settled without the gold rush, but it sure helped."

The shift in focus from exploration of the lunar surface to exploitation of lunar resources raises new ethical challenges for us. Who will profit from these resources, or, as some have phrased it, "Who owns the moon?"

One way to answer these questions is through the eyes of stewardship. Stewardship envisions humans not as owners of the moon but as responsible managers of its resources. We are held accountable for a prudent use of those resources. Such responsibility may support revived lunar exploration but at the same time challenge unreflective exploitation.

As we contemplate colonizing the moon, we should remember that we have not always done enough to protect our home environment. Our disposal of chemicals into waterways has brought us fish and water unfit for human consumption; our marriage to the car has brought us watery eyes and "Spare the Air" days. What have we learned from our treatment of the earth and the air about the protection of the moon and the stars? What will we leave besides footprints in the lunar dust?

Strikingly, humans are the only earthly species with a capacity to have impact not only on the moon but also on the entire solar system. This gives us a special responsibility to recognize that, despite the depths of the universe, there might not be so much space out there that it can meet every demand we place on it or suffer mistreatment lightly. Allow me to propose three guidelines for thinking about this final frontier:

1) Space preservation insists that we value space for its own sake, whether or not it benefits humanity in terms of knowledge, leisure time, or Wall Street profits.

2) Space conservation asks that we take care of the universe's resources for the sake of others and avoid exploitation to benefit the few.

3) Space stewardship demands that humans be held accountable for the management of planetary resources. Each person is responsible for the stewardship of his or her life and the environment in which it is lived. Such an attitude promotes the common good by requiring us to consider how our actions affect others, our vast surroundings, and the future. Individual dignity and well-being are strengthened and supported by preserving a universe in which we can thrive under and with the moon and the stars.

Margaret McLean did her initial research on this question as part of a collaboration between the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. She and other Ethics Center scholars worked with exhibit designers in integrating ethical considerations into the museum's galleries. The director of the Center's Biotechnology and Health Care Ethics Program, McLean is an avid watcher of the night skies.