Project Ploughshares Program Officer Jessica West in conversation with Michelle Hanlon, cofounder of For All Moonkind
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 1 Spring 2019
Jessica West: You have taken an interesting route to your present role as President of the not-for-profit organization For All Moonkind, one with some Canadian connections. For instance, you earned your LLM in Air and Space Law from McGill University in Montreal; along with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, you are an Advisor to the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto. You’re also Associate Director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, and have an interesting legal career in commercial and public law. What inspired you and cofounder Tim Hanlon to start For All Moonkind in 2017?
Michelle Hanlon: A statement by Jan Woerner, chair of the executive board of the German Aerospace Centre, made me think about human heritage in space. At a meeting in China in 2016, he told the press: “I sometimes make the joke: ‘Okay, let’s have a European mission to go to the Moon and bring back the American flag.’”
While he was clearly joking, I am a space lawyer, and my curiosity was piqued. Since humans have been interacting with space for a relatively short period of time, people don’t really think about heritage in space. But there are more than 80 sites on the Moon that host humanmade materials, including Luna-2, the first ever humanmade object to reach the Moon; the Apollo 11 lunar module that supported the first human landing on the Moon; and the Chinese Yutu rover!
These sites bear witness to humanity’s greatest technological achievement: breaking our terrestrial bonds to explore, and use, space. And we do mean all of space. I like to say that just as several sites on Earth are considered cradles of our human civilization, Tranquility Base marks the cradle of our spacefaring future. For All Moonkind seeks to protect and preserve all of our heritage in outer space, but starts with the Moon because it offers the most tangible sites to demonstrate our mission.
While there is a relatively robust regime to protect human heritage here on Earth, those protections do not extend to heritage in space. Unfortunately, we cannot simply extend the World Heritage Convention to space. The World Heritage Convention process requires that a nation nominate a site within its own territory. Conversely, the Outer Space Treaty makes it quite clear, in Article II, that no nation may claim as its territory any site in outer space. In short, we need to develop a new regime to recognize and protect our heritage in outer space.
But it’s not just about the “bootprint.” Certainly, it would be devastating on multiple levels if humanity’s first off-world footsteps were accidentally or intentionally erased or otherwise disturbed. But what’s more important is the unity that preservation can achieve. One hundred ninety-three nations have ratified the World Heritage Convention. Every nation on Earth recognizes the importance of preserving our history.
At For All Moonkind, we believe this message of unity and community is an important one to advance as the human race continues to take baby steps toward a future that is inexorably tied to space. If people can come together as a community to recognize and protect our history in space, perhaps we can build on that unity as we continue our exploration of, and expansion into, space.
JW: A worthy—even lofty—goal! How many cultural sites have been identified so far and how were they selected?
MH: No cultural sites have been identified or recognized by the international community. Not one. In fact, there is not even a single, definitive, internationally accepted list of all the items on the Moon. So, For All Moonkind’s first task is to catalogue all the items on the Moon, using blockchain technology so that the list can easily, and accountably, be updated by interested parties.
Another team is developing a working definition of cultural heritage in space and a framework that will be used to protect designated sites.
While we will happily welcome suggestions and comments, we will have a monitoring committee or council of global experts, including archaeologists, scientists. and engineers, to determine the substance of comments and contributions.
JW: The catalogue will be useful to many people and groups—ours included. But I’m interested in how your work will protect sites. What are the greatest threats to the preservation of human culture on the Moon?
MH: Lack of awareness and complacency! People don’t really think about heritage in space.
But, mention that the first bootprints can be erased with impunity and the reaction is usually something like: “Oh, isn’t the Smithsonian protecting them?” Such an idea not only violates the concept of non-appropriation, it entirely disregards the fact that other nations have objects on the Moon.
Others believe that we don’t have to worry because the Moon is far away and hard to get to. But there are a lot of missions planned for the next several years. Today’s trickle will become tomorrow’s flood. This is not to suggest that the organizations going to the Moon will go out of their way to harm any of these sites. But there is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from grabbing some of the regolith, or an artifact, from any of these Moon sites and then selling it for great profit on Earth.
Finally, many “space” people believe that the sites are protected by Article IX of the Outer Space which requires that all activity in space be conducted with “due regard to the corresponding interests of all other States Parties to the Treaty.” However, there is no legal definition of “due regard.” What does it mean? It can’t possibly mean that you can never move any object placed by another nation on another celestial body in space as this could potentially lead to incredible absurdities.
Will it really be true that we cannot remove, for example, decrepit hardware that is covering potential resources? That would suggest that if you put an object down, you control the space upon which it is placed. That is akin to national appropriation, which violates Article II. These are issues that could become explosive. As the Moon gets more crowded, it’s going to be very important to determine which objects can be displaced with impunity and which might need a bit more consideration.
JW: How have the goals of For All Moonkind been received internationally?
MH: We have not met a single person who has told us this is a bad idea. However, clearly there is some skepticism as to whether we can really achieve our goals. While we have received tremendous vocal support, we have had difficulty raising money (to produce educational materials, primarily for children). Moreover, national and institutional representatives are hesitant to lend their names to our cause.
Interestingly, we have received the greatest support from commercial entities. The private companies that are going back to the Moon—PTScientists, Astrobotic, TeamIndus—have formally pledged their support of our Mission. Their CEOs are members of our Leadership Board. And many other aerospace companies have lent their support both formally and informally.
Given this, we have decided to create an alternate track to a Convention. We are working with private entities to develop agreed guidelines and principles regarding heritage. PTScientists has already signed a Declaration and we are moving into a second phase of drafting with a number of other companies on this point. We actually see the commercial “buy in” happening more swiftly than formal advancement at the government level.
Still, we have been granted Observer status at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and remain deeply grateful for the consideration and recognition we have received from the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs and all of the members and observers of COPUOS.
JW: What can/should we learn from the history of human lunar exploration?
MH: Archaeologists will tell you that our journey to the Moon confirms human beings as a migratory, exploratory species. And the sites on the Moon offer incredible treasure. They are the very first archaeological sites that are not on Earth, and they are pristine, untouched by other humans and preserved by an atmosphere that has no weather.
I like to use the recent controversy over the movie First Man as an example. Some people were upset with the way Damien Chazelle told the story. The sites will tell the real story. Did Neil Armstrong leave his daughter’s bracelet on the lunar surface? The surface will tell. Archaeologists can piece together events and history by looking at what objects were left behind and where they ended up.
And, of course, the lessons to be learned are infinite. We must not forget that we reached the Moon at a time of great strife on Earth. What does that tell us about ourselves? What’s the difference between the Cold War competition and the New Space competition that rages today? The lessons of history are there for us, and we’d be wise to heed them.
JW: Peace is an underlying theme of your work. Can you explain the connection between cultural preservation and peace? How do you see For All Moonkind contributing to this goal in the future?
MH: Russel Train realized that recognition of our common human heritage can strengthen “a sense of kinship with one another as part of a single, global community.” The 193 ratifications of the World Heritage Convention indicate that 193 nations agree that it is important to preserve our human heritage. That’s certainly one small step on the way to peace.
Our first footprints on the Moon were made by American Neil Armstrong. However, Armstrong made it to the Moon on the backs of tens of thousands of engineers and scientists who worked around the clock to build his spacecraft. And those engineers and scientists relied on centuries of science and astronomical observations produced by humans from all around the globe.
Just as we view three-million-year-old footsteps in Tanzania as our common ancestor, we must and can only view our steps on the Moon—and all our heritage in space—as memorials to our common, human achievement.
Preservation reminds us that we are one species. That we are in this together. That we can face the future with more strength if we are united. The universality of our achievements in space can guide us to universal and unifying goals.
JW: What inspiration would you offer to those of us working to maintain peace in outer space?
MH: The biggest challenge is the apathy of the general public. The good news is that this is being recognized at the governmental level. Included in the Long-term Sustainability Guidelines agreed by COPUOS last June is the need to raise awareness among the general public. Slowly but surely, governments are recognizing that the populace needs to understand just how intertwined our lives are with space.
And the benefits of space are snowballing. Every day, we learn about a new way we are harnessing space to eradicate disease, mitigate natural disasters and promote education. The more people realize just how important space is to their lives, the larger the groundswell of support we will garner at a grassroots level.
In 1969, we landed on the Moon, but something else incredible happened around the same time. In 1959, Egypt had to make an agonizing decision. To promote and accelerate the modernization of its economy, it needed to harness the power of the Nile River. Unfortunately, the plan to build what is now known as the Aswan High Dam would result in the creation of a vast lake, which would assure the obliteration of 3,000-year-old temples and monuments.
But that didn’t happen. More than 50 nations came together, contributing $80-million in funds and technical expertise. They didn’t let these temples drown. Instead, they physically moved them, piece by piece, to higher ground, in the greatest archaeological rescue operation of all time. In the words of UNESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahter M’Bow, the International Rescue Nubia Campaign “will be numbered among the few major attempts made in our lifetime by the nations to assume their common responsibility towards the past so as to move forward in a spirit of brotherhood towards the future.”
We can do this.
Every day, you can find human stories that highlight how small and tight our human community really is. Unity does not make headlines. But it’s there.
JW: Space is often viewed as a niche topic. What do you wish that people unfamiliar with space knew about human exploration in outer space?
MH: Everything we do in space benefits humanity, sometimes immediately, as with satellite communications and Earth observations and sometimes in the long-term. Nearly everything we do relies on space in some way, from withdrawing money at the ATM to mapping traffic to determining the fastest way to the airport. It’s too late to turn away from space now.
But the most important thing to recognize is that the ultimate goal of planetary exploration is not to turn our backs on this Earth, but to figure out how to be better humans on our Earth. We want to move heavy manufacturing and mining off Earth and return our planet to its preindustrial condition.
Humans are an exploratory, migratory species. It’s what we do, and we are embarking now on the most exciting phase of all.
JW: But, of course, we don’t want to repeat mistakes we made on Earth on the Moon and in outer space. Sounds like the entrée to a discussion on the need for regulations in space. But that will have to be the subject for another day. Many thanks, Michelle, for a most stimulating conversation. I would recommend that all our readers check out the website of For All Moonkind and a recent NPR report.
Photo: Jessica West, left, poses with Michelle Hanlon of For All Moonkind.