Opinion | Commercial Landings Will Change the Moon Forever
“The act of depositing human remains and other materials, which could be perceived as discards in any other location, on the moon is tantamount to desecration of this sacred space,” Mr. Nygren wrote.
The Navajo president’s protest offers an example of how use of the moon, even for the most well-intentioned purposes, requires a collaborative and deliberate approach. The moon belongs to everyone, which means it belongs to no one; use of the moon by anyone demands consideration of everyone. Lunar landings scheduled for 2024 and 2025 under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program include a water-hunting robot, a navigation system that works like a GPS device, instruments to probe the moon’s interior and sample containers that will collect lunar soil. These private landers will join a flotilla of government-run rovers, landers and science instruments launched by the United States, China, Russia and India. India’s space agency safely landed a new rover on the moon in August, becoming only the fourth country to do so. On Friday, after repeated failed attempts, Japan became the fifth country in the world to safely land a spacecraft on the moon.
But space is still hard, as demonstrated by recent lunar landing failures by Russia and the Israeli firm SpaceIL, which carried the tardigrades in 2019. Though the moon looms large in our sky throughout most nights and days, it is roughly a quarter of a million miles away. Lofting rockets off Earth is one thing; getting to the moon is another.
NASA officials have tried since 2020 to forge a more cooperative path for the moon through the agency’s Artemis Accords, a nonbinding framework that affirms the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and asks signatories to enhance collaboration between nations by agreeing on international standards for equipment, helping each other in emergencies, sharing scientific data and protecting the Apollo landing sites. But the accords also make plenty of room for extracting and using mined “resources,” which could include moon dust, water, rare earth elements or other materials.
There is value in being on the moon as explorers, as scientists, maybe even as prospectors with the goal of helping people back home. But we humans tend to transmute exploration into extraction, and our intentions for the moon seem headed the same way. The moon won’t be alone for long. But it is and will forever be quiet. It plays host to no rumbling thunderstorms, no crashing waves, no bird song, no anthems. We must be its voice. We will soon change its surface, and our relationship to it, forever. At the very least, we owe the moon a considered discussion of why and how we will do so.