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Reimagining the space race


WORLD Radio - Reimagining the space race

India beats Russia to a successful soft landing on the moon’s south pole

Schoolchildren in New Delhi, India cheer as they watch the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3, or “moon craft.” Associated Press/Photo by Manish Swarup

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 29th of August, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, Lunar law and order. It’s not a two player game anymore between the U.S. and Russia.

Back in 2009, China’s Chang’e 1 spacecraft crash-landed on the moon after mapping the surface. Then in 2019, Chang’e 4 made history as the first moon rover to visit the dark side of the moon.

AUDIO: Soft landing on the moon. India is on the moon.

EICHER: On Wednesday, India joined the club and went a step further, sending the first rover to explore the moon’s south pole.

SOUND: [Cheering]

Days earlier, Russia lost contact with its Luna 25 spacecraft during a pre-landing orbit. Officials later confirmed that it crashed into the moon’s surface.

What are these nations trying to accomplish, and what does it mean for the moon?

Joining us now to talk about it is Michelle Hanlon. She’s a professor and co-director of the Air and Space Law Program at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

REICHARD: Michelle, thanks for joining us!

MICHELLE HANLON: Hi, Mary. Thanks for having me.

REICHARD: Let’s start with Russia. Until April of last year, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos planned to collaborate with the European Space Agency for this recent mission, but when Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU cut ties. Two questions: What’s Roscosmos been doing since then? And how does this recent crash-landing affect its plans?

HANLON: So Roscosmos has been really affected by the war in Ukraine, because they literally have no funding. And so when the European Space Agency pulled out of the opportunity to fly with Russia on this Luna 25 mission, it was pretty devastating for Roscosmos. What's interesting about Roscosmos now is they actually made the point of speeding up their plans in order to beat India. And it's sort of like we're living still in that cold war, Space Race era, thinking it's about prestige. And they didn't think about the science, or the opportunity or the exploration. They just thought, "Okay, we've got to beat India. Otherwise, we're going to lose our space creds." And so fundamentally, by not achieving that simple goal, soft landing before India, it set itself back on the prestige stage. And it is not anywhere near in the race anymore.

REICHARD: Well, India joined the Artemis Accords back in July. Remind us of what the Artemis Accords are and why it’s significant that India is now a member?

HANLON: Of course, the Artemis Accords are an incredible international multilateral instrument. It's not a binding treaty. It's a set of guidelines and principles. The United States basically met with four or five or six of its closest allies during COVID and said, Look, we need to get back to the moon, we need to do this collaboratively, as an international community. And we see a lot of flaws in existing law, governing things like how we're going to actually interact with each other when we're all on the moon. And so we're going to create these guidelines. This is how we think we ought to act. They're aspirational, inspirational goals. And among them, basically, they support what is already existing the Outer Space Treaty and its progeny that and these are binding multilateral treaties that Russia, China, India and all the spacefaring nations and many non-spacefaring nations have signed and the Artemis accords just take them a little step further. They say, well, the article two of the Outer Space Treaty says you can't own property, you can't claim territory in space. So hey, we're going to interpret that to say, well, you can't claim territory, but you can extract resources and use them.

So the Artemis Accords are now been signed or or acceded to by 28 nations, including India. And when we think about geopolitics and the space race of the United States is the the leader if you will of the Artemis program and the Artemis Accords, and it's has hand held its hands out to the world. Well, China has also decided, well, we're going to do something too. So China has this International Lunar Research Station. And they have announced that they have partnered with Russia. Russia was its initial founding partner. And Venezuela has also joined that effort. And I believe the UAE has as well.

And so for India to join the U.S. effort, U.S.-led effort sort of indicates an interesting balance. It was very intent on being sort of neutral in this space race, but clearly decided, okay, we like the principles that are stated in the Artemis Accords. We like the countries that have ratified the Artemis Accords. We think the Artemis accords will be supportive of what we're doing. That doesn't mean they can't also join China at later at some later time. But it is a huge boon to have 28 nations, which include India, as part of the Artemis Accords.

REICHARD: Turning now to India’s moon mission, why did the Indian Space Research Organization send the Chandrayaan-3 lunar rover to the moon’s south pole?

HANLON: So first of all, I just want to, you know, celebrate what India has accomplished. It is the first country to soft land a vehicle on the south pole of the moon. And why is this significant? First of all, nobody's ever done it. And we saw you know how hard it is Russia couldn't make it. But secondly, this is where the resources on the moon are the most readily available and easy to access. And it was Chandrayaan 1 which actually confirmed to us that there is water on the moon, opening up this entire new concept of how we're going to use the moon. One of the reasons we didn't go back to the moon after 1972 was because it was hard to get to and very expensive and it would be impossible to set up a installation or a research station if there weren't some resources we could use on the moon to support those. Well, finding water is a game changer. And then we determined that most of the water is or the the easiest and most accessible water is down on the South Pole. So this mission is incredibly important, so that we can understand what what does the water really look like? We don't know, we haven't sent anything down in those craters. And how easily accessible is it? Will we be able to mine it?

REICHARD: Well, final question here Michelle. How do property rights work on the moon? You mentioned earlier things need to change as more countries work towards moving in.

HANLON: Property rights. Hahaha. Let me first start by saying if you have a certificate that says you own a piece of the moon, you got swindled. Okay, nobody owns a piece of the moon. That, as I noted, Article Two says you cannot, a state cannot claim territory in outer space. And I told you already United States and 28 nations of the Artemis accords have said it means we're not going to claim territory but we can extract the resources and use them and sell them, do whatever we want with them. But what is this concept of property? The declaration, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that every human has the right to own property. Doesn't that follow us into space? And so what does that mean against Article Two which says you can't claim territory while claiming territory? Can you claim territory as an individual? I would argue yes. I have very close colleagues who would argue no. These are the questions that we have to identify and solve. These are the questions we have to answer as we get closer and closer to this, this new era where we have people living and working on the moon.

REICHARD: So much to learn. Michelle Hanlon is a professor and co-directs the Air and Space Law Program at the University of Mississippi. Thank you for joining us! Fascinating.

HANLON: Thank you, Mary. It was fun.

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