In the late 1960s, the environmentalism movement emerged in response to the impacts of industrialization on our planet. As humanity expands its presence beyond Earth, that conversation has broadened to include space, most recently regarding the proliferation of satellite constellations. All space missions are run by humans and organizations on Earth, so it is in our species’ best interest to avoid repeating the mistakes of our forebears. The Moon is particularly top of mind given NASA’s Artemis program. We can learn about sustainable ways to approach lunar exploration by applying frameworks on Earth from environmental law, mining, and land use.  

The goal of the Artemis program, as directed by Vice President Mike Pence, is “sustainable lunar surface exploration and development” as a stepping stone to the human exploration of Mars. Here, “sustainable” refers to long-lasting, but what could it mean for the Moon through an environmentalist lens? As I have described previously, the 1969 American National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) stated that the goal of sustainability is to “create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” There is legal debate as to whether NEPA applies to U.S. activities in space, but I believe in the underlying philosophy that we must account for the intrinsic rights of both humans and the natural world—including worlds beyond our own.  

Dozens of spacecraft from several nations have landed on the lunar surface through hard (intentional or unintentional) or soft landings. Some, such as the Apollo landing sites, are viewed as historic sites that should not be touched. A less charitable view is that these dead spacecraft are litter on the lunar surface. Clearly, at a certain point—whether it’s hundreds or thousands of spacecraft is hard to say—it will be unacceptable for humans to continue leaving their detritus on the Moon without a disposal plan. But there are currently no clear rules, laws, norms, pathways, or technical approaches to doing so without a wholesale reconsideration of space exploration. 

Apollo 15 mission (NASA/JSC/ASU/Andy Saunders) 

In addition to our leftover space junk, we must also consider the impacts of using lunar resources for human exploration purposes. Mining on Earth has underpinned technological revolutions and modernity as we all experience it today. However, there have been serious environmental and human costs to unfettered resource extraction, including but not limited to tailings dam failures, human rights violations in countries with underregulated industries, pollution, and health impacts on neighboring communities. Because of this history, mining companies across the globe are increasingly incentivized to work with impacted communities above and beyond any regulatory boxes they must check.  

Their method of engagement is called social license to operate, defined as the “ongoing acceptance and approval of a mining development by local community members and other stakeholders that can affect its profitability.” In essence, if a company does not provide pathways to input perceived as fair by external stakeholders, the mining activities may be interrupted by protests, for example. The Moon is more complicated because in some ways, every human is a stakeholder of lunar activities: We all see the Moon, and its cycles are woven into our cultures and even our biology. Thus, in the absence of clear international laws (since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty did not get specific enough to be actionable), every entity embarking on a lunar mission should consider: Who (now or in the future) could be negatively impacted by this activity? How can I involve them in my process? What can I do to minimize my impact?  

Sunrise Dam Gold Mine, Australia (Calistemon)
Sunrise Dam Gold Mine, Australia (Calistemon

One approach to managing conflicting interests is through zoning. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) provides a template on how to balance both natural and economic interests. Let’s take Washington state, where First Mode is headquartered. Western Washington is home to lush coniferous forests, and logging has been a critical part of the regional economy since European settlers arrived in the mid-1800s. Washington is also famous for its spectacular mountain ranges and volcanoes, including the Cascades and Mount Rainier. The conflict between logging interests and the preservation of these natural wonders is balanced through different land use classifications: National parks are preserved for their natural beauty, geology, ecosystems, and recreational opportunities, while national forests can be leased by private companies for logging and grazing. Western Washington has both. 

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State (Danny Seidman

Translating this system to the Moon, it is easy to see that there could be conflicts of interest, for example, at permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) that contain water ice. Lunar scientists will want to keep these sites as pristine as possible for study, while lunar mining companies will be interested in extracting the ice for in-situ resource utilization. Taking inspiration from U.S. national parks and forests, zoning can provide a solution in which some areas are preserved for their intrinsic beauty or scientific integrity and others can be leased for extraction. Of course, the devil is in the details—how does one implement this at an international, planetary scale?—but the approach offers an analogy for how systems that work on Earth can be translated for purposes beyond our planet.   

The rim of Shackleton crater on the south pole of the Moon (NASA/GSFC/ASU

With the direction supplied by the Artemis program, it is an exciting time for space exploration. In our excitement, we should recall the mistakes made in the past here on Earth and work intentionally to ensure we are not repeating them. An absence of regulation does not mean there is an absence of ethical obligation to maintain sustainable space environments for future generations and for the intrinsic value of space itself.