Op-ed | Lunapolitics: 10 points to consider

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The moon is again the object of competition between major space powers. These powers aim — perhaps even in this decade — to establish a permanent human presence on the moon’s surface and in its orbit, and exploit lunar resources for economic benefit.

This renewed competition for the moon is the basis for the rise of Lunapolitics: where political and economic interests intersect with the topography and physical properties of the moon, from its subsurface through to cislunar space. The competitors are primarily the United States and China, but also Europe, Japan, India, and Russia, as well as companies hoping to mine the moon’s resources. Lunapolitics is the equivalent of geopolitics, and it is a growing and important reality that will keep diplomats, executives, and strategists busy for decades to come.

With this increasing importance of Lunapolitics, I offer the following 10 points for consideration by those tasked with creating the political and economic framework for our future on the moon:

1. Political and Economic competition for the moon is generally a positive phenomenon: Competition is healthy, yet competition for the moon needs rules of the road and agreed-upon principles undergirded by widely accepted space law, especially the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The alternative risks a zero-sum, overtly militarized scramble for the moon that benefits no one over the long-term. Lunapolitics is essentially the management of this competition.

2. Currently, the United States is the prime mover of Lunapolitics: It is the only space power today capable of mustering the technological capability, financial resources, and diplomatic will to establish the foundation for a broadly acceptable Lunapolitical framework. The Artemis Accords could be the basis for this, but they do not entitle the United States to a leadership role; America could find itself isolated should it disregard the legitimate concerns and interests of other countries, including those of China and Russia.

3. Lunapolitical power is predicated on geopolitical power on Earth: The largest Lunapolitical powers of the future will be those who possess the favorable geopolitical conditions on Earth today that allow them to be space powers. These conditions include space launch facilities that provide routine access to cislunar space; a highly educated and motivated workforce; a vibrant and developed economy and business climate; and an advanced scientific, technological, and industrial base. It is most probable, therefore, that the United States and China will be the leading Lunapolitical powers.

4. Lunapolitics is economic as much as it political: Just as geopolitics on Earth has a significant geoeconomic component, Lunapolitics will have a considerable Lunaeconomic agenda that will require a deep understanding of the evolving political economy and business dynamics of, on, and around the moon. While Lunaeconomics will be an important component of Lunapolitics, narrow business interests on the moon should not dictate wider and longer-term strategic and political interests of lunar powers.

5. Legitimate Lunapolitics will allow freedom of passage to the moon for all: With sufficient farsightedness, a legitimate Lunapolitical architecture will ensure freedom of passage and navigation between the Earth and the moon for any country or company capable of doing so. Unilateral demands or conditions that certain actors not be permitted access to the moon is a shortcut to delegitimizing any agreed-upon architecture.

6. It will also promote sustainable activity and presence on the moon: Humanity’s poor environmental legacy on Earth should not be replicated on the moon, or elsewhere in the Solar System and beyond. A Lunapolitical architecture should enshrine principles and practices that promote its political, economic, and environmental sustainability.

7. Lunapolitical alliances will constantly shift and evolve: As on Earth, Lunapolitical alliances are not permanent and will inevitably change with shifting political and economic interests. It is essential that a durable Lunapolitical architecture can withstand shifting alliances and changed interests.

8. Militaries support Lunapolitical order, not dominate it: A legitimate Lunapolitical architecture can ensure broad international support so long as it advances a predominantly civil and economic agenda. Any overt militarization of Lunapolitics — by any country except under the most exceptional of circumstances — will undermine legitimacy and provoke adverse international reaction. This does not mean that the military does not have a role in Lunapolitics; however, that role should be to ensure freedom of passage and navigation, search and rescue, and enforcing internationally accepted standards of conduct. No single national military will have a monopoly on these functions, and instead a military role in Lunapolitics should be multinational.

9. Lunapolitics is normal, Lunapolitik is not: Lunapolitics will be a normal byproduct of growing political and economic interests in the moon, and to reject the concept out of some misplaced notion that politics has no role in our future presence there is to invite an even worse alternative. To accept Lunapolitics is to also accept responsibility for the future well-being of our moon and our presence there. What is not normal, however, is Lunapolitik — a lunar approximation of Nazi German Geopolitik — where competition is unbounded, rapacious, zero-sum, and overtly militarized.

10. Lunapolitics is a long game, not just an election cycle issue: Finally, Lunapolitics will require a long view, strategic thinking, and a large dose of prudence and enlightened self-interest. While inevitably, Lunapolitics will be dragged into parochial national politicking to some extent, those charged with tending the Lunapolitical agenda should do their best to build bipartisan and multinational constituencies concerned with the common good and interest.

The future is inherently unknowable, and the Lunapolitical agenda outlined here will undoubtedly experience challenges and even setbacks.

But the future is also shapeable, and it is our collective choice whether Lunapolitics opens up new economic opportunities and scientific possibilities, or whether our future in space ends before it could even begin.


John B. Sheldon, Ph.D., is the founder of Lunapolitics.com, a forthcoming content and strategic consulting platform committed to promoting and securing a sustainable and stable Lunapolitical framework for the future. @johnbsheldon

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.