A new space race has begun – if we don’t act now, it could trigger a war worse than WWII

The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchausen – 19th century engraving by Gustave Doré
The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchausen – 19th century engraving by Gustave Doré - Culture Club/Getty

For millennia, the Moon has been an object of wondrous speculation: deified as a goddess, hymned in poetry and blamed for madness. Today such speculation has ended and a quite different kind – speculation in the commercial sense – has begun.

We no longer tell tales of the man in the Moon, or of how it’s made from cheese. Now we look at it as land to mine. Lunar deposits of basalt, iron, quartz and silicon – not to mention the strong possibility of chlorine, lithium, beryllium, zirconium, uranium, thorium, and “rare-earth” metals – all whet commercial appetites, since some of these, needed for new technologies on Earth, are in short supply here.

Significantly, the Moon also has ice. Water might sustain human settlement of the lunar surface, and can be separated into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel to power further exploration of Mars and the solar system.

This explains the increase in lunar missions in recent years. Plans to put human feet back on the Moon – not visited by astronauts since 1972 – are well advanced; Nasa hopes to achieve it in late 2026. Last week, the Odysseus lander, designed by Houston-based Intuitive Machines and launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, became the first private spacecraft ever to reach the Moon.

For this mission, Intuitive Machines was hired by Nasa (to the tune of $118 million) to deliver research instruments to the lunar surface, including a stereo camera and radio receiver. Other cargo included a set of 125 mini Moon sculptures by the artist Jeff Koons. The lander was wrapped in a metallic jacket manufactured by Columbia Sportswear.

Odysseus is the US’s first Moon landing in more than half a century. But it is a sign, too, of how it is no longer just state enterprise – which drove the space race of the previous century – that is involved. Private companies are investing billions in the Moon’s potential.

Jeff Bezos has spoken of his hope to move “heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space”. And the Amazon billionaire – whose Blue Origin company was awarded a $3.4 billion contract by Nasa last year to build a spacecraft to transport astronauts to the Moon – is not wrong. Meanwhile, Musk has spoken of his ambition to establish a human presence on Mars, because “we don’t want to be one of those single planet species, we want to be a multi-planet species”. And he is not entirely wrong either.

Jeff Bezos has spoken of his hope to move 'heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space'
Jeff Bezos has spoken of his hope to move 'heavy industry and all polluting industry off of Earth and operate it in space' - Geopix / Alamy Stock Photo

Mining on the Moon is preferable to mining on Earth, already poisoned by industrial activity. And new frontiers bring many benefits to humanity: they are a spur to knowledge and technological innovation, expanding the borders of human imagination and ingenuity.

But history shows that the hunger to conquer and exploit also brings risks. Competition can turn into conflict when billions of dollars are at stake and rivalries to be first or get most are fierce in an unregulated domain. And when it comes to the imminent major leap in humanity’s activity in space, compelled by the search for profit and control of valuable resources, we have scarcely any plans in place. The Moon is a new Wild West, completely open to adventurers with the means to claim it. The fact that the lead is being taken by well-endowed private enterprise, driven by the ambitions of major entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, rather than states, brings into view a reprise of the “Great Man” version of history, in which individual ambition is the driving force.

There is just one outdated provision in place for regulating the gold rush that has already begun. This is the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty, adopted in 1967. At that time the idea of commercial activity on the Moon, of human settlement and mining operations, verged on science fiction. The Treaty did not envisage it, but instead focused on what was a pressing question of the day: the prospect of nuclear weapons being tested there. It stipulates that the Moon should not be used for military purposes, but leaves other activity unmentioned.

Fundamentally the 1967 Treaty was a US-USSR arrangement to limit the spread of Cold War risks. The first satellite put into orbit, the USSR’s Sputnik in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin’s space flight around Earth in April 1961, had galvanised the US into competitive endeavour. They were the prompt for John F. Kennedy’s initiation of the Nasa programme to put men on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. It was a macho technological race, with military implications; these latter underlay the need for some degree of restraint.

The 1967 treaty specifically characterises the Moon as terra nullius, open to anyone who can get there to do what they like other than place weapons on it. But military technology has now advanced into the creation of equally if not more devastating weapons systems, these already deployed in the congested orbital zone around Earth, where constellations of satellites vital to communications, surveillance, military control systems, and much more, are both guarded and threatened by ASATS (anti-satellite weapons) including space- and Earth-based lasers and sophisticated hacking techniques.

'Last week, Odysseus landed on the lunar surface in a jacket by Columbia Sportswear'
'Last week, Odysseus landed on the lunar surface in a jacket by Columbia Sportswear' - Zuma Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The race for profit and power is a path to disaster. The Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century shows how destabilising such lust can be. The European powers partitioned between them an entire continent of 10 million square miles, behaving as if it were empty land although it was inhabited by 110 million people, whom the colonists treated as if they were not there in any political or moral sense. This era of colonial competition was a major causative factor in precipitating the First World War. Within decades of dismembering Africa the major players were killing one another in trenches in France and Flanders. That, in turn, led to the Second World War, which led to the Cold War, all of which accelerated the development of military technologies; to say nothing of the legacies of empire and the revival of historical antipathies around the world. It is a dismaying and troubling picture.

Nor does legal history provide much in the way of comfort. The Antarctic Treaty System, effective since 1961, which protects that continent from military activity and economic exploitation (the only permitted activity being carefully-controlled science) is the most celebrated example of an international agreement successfully, so far, restraining despoliation of a region.

But the Treaty sends loud warning signs. One example suffices. China acceded to the Treaty in 1983. Today, its five research stations in Antarctica have satellite facilities – a boost to its military intelligence powers. In a move further threatening the Treaty, China has made a virtual sovereignty claim to territory by asserting its rights to control a large “Specially Managed Area” around its Kunlun station. China now invests more than any other Antarctic participant and has full land, sea and air capability there. Why this flurry of activity? Perhaps because in 2048 the moratorium on mining in the Antarctic comes to an end, and China wishes to be ready.

Along with Russia, China has repeatedly resisted efforts by the other Antarctic parties to extend protections of wildlife on the continent. If this Treaty, held up as the most progressive ever attained by humanity, is in an increasingly frayed state, what hope is there for the Outer Space Treaty, weak as it is; and therefore what hope for the Moon?

Optimists will say that because there are no people and no wildlife on the Moon, no natural environment to be disturbed or destroyed, there is no need to worry – apart from anxieties about pollution (Nasa’s Apollo astronauts all left their nappies on the Moon). But this misses the point. The point is what competition leads to. Private agencies investing billions of dollars in exploiting the Moon’s resources, and determined to get a significant return from that investment, will not be amenable to interference or disruptive rivalry from others with the same objective. States will not hesitate to support their citizens and corporations who are interfered with by citizens and corporations of other states. If actual fighting breaks out as a result, it will not be restricted to space.

AC Grayling, author of Who Owns the Moon?
AC Grayling, author of Who Owns the Moon? - Oneworld

It would be wrong to overlook the benefits of the exploration and settlement of space, which could bring an entirely new dimension to human history. Colonies on the Moon and Mars might one day become independent new states, as past colonies on Earth have done. If Earth itself becomes uninhabitable because of climate change or devastating nuclear war, humanity might owe its survival to the great adventure of space travel – Musk argued something similar, when he said, “If there’s a Third World War we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the Dark Age”.

But the truth is, a Scramble for the Moon also prickles with the potential for trouble, and the existing legislation is inadequate to prevent it or manage it if – it is more realistic to say when – it happens.

A new and extremely robust treaty is needed, one that will be better than the Antarctic Treaty in preventing bad-faith actors from circumventing it to steal a march on others, one that will dampen the recklessness which the profit-imperative so often encourages, as every example of the “Scramble” phenomenon shows. Treaties are never watertight; they will be observed only as long as it is in the self-interest of participating parties to abide by them, and history abundantly demonstrates that when self-interest dictates that more profit is to be had from reneging on them, then that is what will happen.

Even so, treaties are our only hope. The lust for money and power has been as destructive in human history as the opposition between religions, so we have to continue efforts to agree ways of limiting the harm they cause. Perhaps in time human nature will mature to the point of making self-restraint and concern for others a more powerful force than self-interest. But we are not there yet.

Now we are on the brink of exporting not just our genius and creativity but our rivalries and jealousies into space – our appetite for riches and control, our too-frequent propensity to fall out with one another and kill each other as a result. Could we not, instead, see this as an opportunity to do things differently? A new frontier to cross into cooperative activity, a new world – a new universe – to be better in? Until we do, we need a new Outer Space Treaty.

It’s time to make clear that if the question is, who owns the Moon?, the answer must be: we all do.

Who Owns the Moon? by AC Grayling (Oneworld, £16.99) is published on Thursday