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Chartering the first Moon settlement

Published onMar 31, 2020
Chartering the first Moon settlement

In this activity, you’ll learn about two documents that continue to define and influence space law today: the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement. Written in the 1960s and 70s, when space exploration was just beginning, these two documents shape conversations around the governance and management of outer space and celestial bodies. In this activity, you’ll debate whether the U.S. should sign onto the Moon Agreement.

Historical Sources and Recommended Background Reading:

Key Questions

  • Why are charters and agreements important when setting up new societies? 

  • What kinds of rights and restrictions has the Outer Space Treaty led to?

  • Why is the Moon Agreement such a contentious document?

  • Do you think we need to agree on a universal charter before we return to the Moon and begin a settlement?

The Magna Carta and Constitutional Democracies

The Magna Carta is an important historical document that has influenced many fundamental documents like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. Written in 1215, it is an English Charter and represents a key landmark in Britain’s constitutional history. It established many principles that influence our modern democracies. Here’s a short article about the relevance of the Magna Carta and its influence today.

Watch this brief introductory video to the Magna Carta from the British Library:

What is Magna Carta?

Now that you understand the context and significance of the Magna Carta, consider the following clauses:


No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.


All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.


In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.


No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.


To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

Some of the clauses are quite specific, and may not make sense in today’s context. But consider that about a third of the 63 clauses were written to restrict the King’s influence over the people while other more durable parts of the Magna Carta focus on granting liberties to the people of England. 

Of the above clauses, which seemed to be directed at restricting King John from impeding on the liberties of the people, and which would be more relevant today?

The legacy of the Magna Carta was the assertion of people’s rights against an oppressive ruler. When it came time for the United States to declare independence from the Kingdom of England, the authors of the US Constitution looked to the Magna Carta for inspiration. The 39th clause influenced the famous decree of the universal right to life, liberty and property. (For more about the influence of the Magna Carta on the US Constitution, see this article).

Governing Outer Space

When we first started exploring space, both through satellites like Sputnik and by landing humans on the Moon, it became clear that people would have to talk about governance beyond the Earth. Much like the people who wrote the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution, people wanted to make sure that if humans lived on other planets, they would still be guaranteed certain rights and liberties. But unlike on Earth, no one has ever lived in outer space, and no one country has the right to govern it.

In 1958, the United Nations created the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to "review the scope of international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, to devise programs in this field to be undertaken under United Nations auspices, to encourage continued research and the dissemination of information on outer space matters, and to study legal problems arising from the exploration of outer space."

UN COPUOS drafted two key documents that help govern outer space activities today:

The Outer Space Treaty 

Signed in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) formed the foundation for international space law, based on the following principles:

  • The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;

  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;

  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;

  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;

  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;

  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;

  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;

  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and

  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

The Moon Agreement

Originally signed in 1979, the Moon Agreement is a multilateral treaty proposed to the United Nations that extends the jurisdiction of the Outer Space Treaty to the Moon and other celestial bodies in the solar system. It also specifically bans ownership of any extraterrestrial property by any organization or private person, unless that organization is international and governmental. 

The stated purposes of the Moon Treaty are:

  1. to promote on the basis of equality the further cooperation among States in exploring the Moon and other celestial bodies

  2. to prevent the Moon from becoming an area of international conflict

  3. to define and develop the provisions of existing legal instruments in relation to the Moon and other celestial bodies

The most controversial section of the Moon Treaty deals with natural resources on the Moon, stating that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of humankind, and that harvesting those resources is forbidden except through an international regime (not specified) established to govern the exploitation of such resources when it is feasible. 

Consider the following responsibilities placed on parties to the Moon Agreement:

  1. the preservation of life

  2. the return of property to its rightful owner

  3. the concurrent use of the Moon by two or more parties

Articles 8 and 9 state that parties to the agreement must not interfere with the activities of another state or impede free access to the Moon.

As well as Article 10, which requires all parties adopt all practicable measures to safeguard the life and health of all persons on the Moon, including the offering of shelter to people in distress.

Read the Moon Agreement and the above clauses of the Outer Space Treaty. How are the documents different? Why do we need two separate documents? Can you see the influence of historical documents like the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution on these treaties?

Assignment: Pick two articles from the Moon Agreement and make an argument for how they were influenced by clauses from the Magna Carta.

Should the U.S. sign the Moon Agreement?

Currently, the parties that have signed the Moon Agreement are: Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. You’ll notice that the US and other countries that have human spaceflight programs are not included on that list. 

Some countries and industries are interested in mining the Moon. Missions launched by the US, China and India have identified the existence of water, rare elements, and metals on the Moon. Those resources could be mined for use on Earth, or help us eventually build power systems and habitats on the lunar surface itself. (Read more about lunar mining here). As it currently stands, the Moon Agreement bans the use of lunar resources for commercial profit, which could explain why some countries won’t agree to it.

Take a look at some plans for economic activities on the lunar surface below:

Source: ULA

Source: George Sowers Colorado School of Mines/Sowers Space Solutions, Denver, Colorado, USA

What are some terrestrial analogs for these activities, and what regulations can you think of that might apply in space (or may have to be created)?

Your Mission: Create a Federalist Paper for the Moon

After the Founding Fathers of America drafted the U.S. Constitution, it was submitted to the states for ratification in 1787. A series of articles published in the New York press criticized the proposition, and were deemed the Anti-Federalist Papers. In response, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published a series of articles and essays called The Federalist Papers in support of ratifying the Constitution. 

Your Mission: Write your own version of a Federalist Paper in support of or against the United States of America signing onto the Moon Treaty and post it on our forum. Think from the perspective of a potential lunar settler - what rights would you want to be guaranteed? Will the Moon Agreement be good enough, or should the UN create a new charter for life on the Moon? Consider, in particular, the issue of property rights - should people be allowed to mine the Moon? (Bonus! Record a video of yourself making a plea for your case. Dress up as a future space settler for extra pizazz. )

Forum Activity: We’ve created forums for various articles of the Moon Treaty - make an argument for or against keeping the article in the treaty, and debate with other students online. You’ll see some discussions already going on in the forums.

Further Reading:

BONUS: Enter our K-12 Lunar Habitat Challenge!

As part of MIT’s larger return to the moon, we’re running an online K-12 challenge, and encourage you to submit an entry! The challenge is to design a lunar habitat and submit your designs to our team by May 15, 2020. The winners of the challenge will be selected for a special prize! Details of the competition and how to enter can be found here.

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