Michelle Hanlon is the co-founder of For All Moonkind, a nonprofit established in June that seeks to preserve the six Apollo lunar landing sites—including Tranquility Base—by having them classified as world heritage sites. Hanlon spoke with senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in August.
Air & Space: How or why did you become a practitioner of space law?
Hanlon: As a child, my father was always involved in astronomy. He had every book on the moon and the planets. Every time a new book came out, he got them. So that was the backdrop of my life. But after majoring in political science, I went on to become a corporate attorney. When my sons were growing up, they showed the same interest in space. And when my oldest son went to college, he became an aerospace engineer, and he was writing a lot of papers, and I was the only one with the wherewithal to proof them—usually at midnight. I started reading his papers about building cube satellites and thinking: This really is the future. I need to get involved in this. When I did my research on where to go to study space law, I learned about McGill University, which has the oldest, and—biased opinion—best space law program in the world. So I applied and was accepted.
Why do you think the Apollo lunar landing sites should be preserved?
The Apollo lunar landing sites represent a crowning achievement technologically. At the same time, they are a baby step into humanity’s future, because we’re going to have footsteps all over the solar system. Yes, it’s not going to be in my lifetime, but it’s going to be sooner than we think. We at For All Moonkind believe the Apollo program was a momentous time in human history. And we can preserve it. Archaeologists will tell you the Apollo landing sites are an archaeologist’s dream because they are untouched by weather, untouched by any other living organisms—they’re pristine. The sites capture the very essence of humanity’s curiosity, its passion, its intellect, its imagination.
What are some of the ways the Apollo lunar landing sites could be defiled?
The most likely scenario is that a rover trying to get to the moon crash-lands on them. We’re looking at five companies trying to get up there by December of this year. I am sure they are all responsible, but we are rushing to get back to the moon. Mistakes are going to be made. Accidents happen. There are NASA guidelines about how close they want you to be to the sites because when you land, there is a dust storm that occurs, and the dust on the moon is very sharp, which could compromise the sites.
Is anyone arguing that the Apollo lunar landing sites should not be protected?
I don’t know of any corporation making that argument. There is a group of explorers who believe that the Apollo landing sites should be used as bases—we should go back to Tranquility Base and land there because we know we can land there. We should go back and get these rovers and repurpose them. To them I would say: We can go back and study, but we need to preserve and study.
What action do you think should be taken to protect the sites?
We are working to create and to develop a convention on the human heritage of outer space. We want to create a process by which we recognize that we need to protect our cultural heritage in space, the same way we do on Earth. We have a pro bono legal team here at For All Moonkind that is going to draft that first convention, and we’d like to present it to the United Nations next June.
What is your opinion on companies who want to use the moon and its resources for profit?
I have a very diverse board here at For All Moonkind, so these are my thoughts—I know that some of my board members won’t necessarily agree with me. I’m all for it. I think if there are resources on the moon, we should have access to them. I support the idea that if you mine it, you own it. You don’t own the territory on the moon. You can’t own a piece of the moon. But if you are able to extract those resources, I believe companies need the opportunity to recoup their investment by taking possession of those resources. In deep sea mining, the United Nations has set up sort of a tax fee. A percentage of what you mine goes to a trust. I would love to see something similar for space commerce.
Is claiming rights to the moon just the beginning of issues that space law will need to address? Is space law very much in its infancy?
Yes. Aviation, for example, is beautifully regulated by ICAO and the Chicago Convention, which came about because of World War II. It took a cataclysmic event and the use of airplanes as weapons for the world to decide, okay, we better regulate this. That’s where space law is today. We have the Outer Space Treaty, which is a phenomenal document. Hats off to the gentlemen who negotiated that treaty during the cold war. They have created the basic principles that guide how we explore space right now. The Outer Space Treaty, though, only applies to sovereign nations, so we really need to sit down again. We need to get all these people back to the table to talk about how we’re going to regulate private actors in space.
I just finished my research on how a private citizen would be regulated onboard a space station. We’re going to have an orbiting space hotel probably within the next decade. And what happens if there’s a hotel guest who gets assaulted by another guest? Or a hotel guest is injured by a space object? These are things that the Outer Space Treaty did not contemplate.
Your comments about the need for laws regulating space tourism reminds me of the cruise ship industry, and who has jurisdiction when a crime takes place aboard a cruise ship.
I did a lot of research into the cruise industry, and there were many hearings after the Costa Concordia accident [a cruise ship that wrecked off the coast of Italy on January 13, 2012], and it is amazing how these things just slip through the cracks. Who do you sue and where do you sue? How much power should the cruise companies have over where you’re going to be in court? If you are a cruise ship passenger from Japan, and you have to sue a cruise ship corporation in south Florida, that’s going to put a damper on a lawsuit potential.
What are some other issues that space law needs to address?
The militarization of space. The Outer Space Treaty says you can’t put nuclear weapons in space, but it’s silent on finer points, whether you can put conventional weapons in orbit, for example. Back and forth over the decades, there’s been a discussion of anti-satellite technology and how it should be regulated. What are the repercussions of one country destroying another country’s satellite?
How many people around the world practice space law?
There are not a lot of us, but I would call it a passionate group. The people who have decided to go into space law—we’re not doing it for the money. We’re doing it because of a passion for space. You will see the same names of experts over and over: Ram Jahku, who’s my mentor at McGill. I have colleagues from United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Russia. Our group is growing: You’re getting commercial lawyers who started off doing telecommunications work, and now they’re advising the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world.