KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The discovery of water on the moon is similar to finding gold that hastened settlement of the American West, a University of Tennessee law professor said Monday.
Glenn Reynolds, a UT-Knoxville law professor who served on a NASA commission for space law and published articles on space property rights, said the discovery could provide more incentive for private exploration of the moon.
“It was the availability of wealth that opened up the American west, first fur then gold,” Reynolds said. “One of the reasons that we have not had a rush for the moon so far is that there hasn’t been a compelling enough reason to go or reason to believe we could sustain any activity there without tremendous expense.
“The discovery of water suggest that we can sustain activity there a lot more cheaply.”
NASA has announced that its Lunar Prospector spacecraft has discovered millions of gallons of water on the moon. The water, frozen in the moon’s crust, could be used to support a lunar colony, and create oxygen to breathe, rocket fuel, and a base station for exploring deep space.
Reynolds said discovery of water may raise interest about who legally owns water and land on the moon. Companies who get first access to the water conceivably could block other companies from setting up “within a reasonable distance,” he said, but that distance is not clear.
“The general rule is that a nation cannot claim sovereignty over space objects or the moon, but that individuals can claim property rights and exercise actual possession and control over an area,” Reynolds said. “That does not mean that somebody could fly a robot to the moon and claim all the ice that is there. But certainly if a company was up there using it to make rocket fuel or oxygen to breathe, it would have a legitimate property right.”
Dr. Larry Taylor, a UT-Knoxville geologist who worked on Apollo and is involved in other NASA lunar programs, said water drastically cuts the cost of going to the moon. Fuel and oxygen can be made from water much cheaper than it can be carried in a spacecraft, he said.
This will spur commercialization of the moon, Taylor said. some companies have expressed interest in building a moon base for planetary exploration, or even chartering travel excursions to the moon, he said.
“To have a colony on the moon, the incentive is going to have to be commercial or some type of economic return,” Taylor said. “Basic science is not going to drive moon exploration. Even for Apollo, politics and engineering were initial drivers, not science.
“There’s a lot of effort by companies to actually get their own flight to the moon and establish various commercial ventures,” Taylor said. “The presence of water makes it much more enticing.”
Contact: Dr. Larry Taylor (423-974-6013) or Glenn Reynolds (423-974-6744)