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The race to the moon is in full force


India has accomplished something no other country has done.


SREEDHARA PANICKER SOMANATH: Soft landing on the moon - India is on the moon.


DETROW: It successfully landed a spacecraft near the moon's south pole, a largely uncharted region. The south pole is the coolest place to be on the moon right now. Craters near the south pole are in a permanent shadow. In fact, it is so cool that experts think there could be frozen water there. And so for the past few years, it's been where many countries have been trying to go.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

DETROW: Russia launched a probe, Luna 25, earlier this month, but it crashed into the moon. Other countries have also been trying for years to land unmanned probes on the moon - sometimes successfully, like China in 2019...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, we got word overnight that a Chinese spacecraft has landed on the far side of the moon. And this is the first image...

DETROW: ...Other times, not so successfully...


OPHER DORON: We seem to have a problem with our main engine.

DETROW: ...Like in Israel's case...


DORON: We had a failure in the spacecraft. We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully.

DETROW: ...And Japan...


TAKESHI HAKAMADA: We lost the communication, so we have to assume that we could not complete the landing on the lunar surface.

DETROW: As for NASA...


BILL NELSON: So there's renewed interest in the moon.

DETROW: ...It hopes its mission, Artemis II, will put humans back on the moon by 2024.


NELSON: And, of course, it's there because the potential of water. And if there is water in enough abundance, then you have the potential for hydrogen and oxygen.

DETROW: More countries than ever have a presence in space, and the majority of them are focused on getting to the moon. So what will this new space race mean for humanity? And just what is the big deal about water anyway?

JOHN F KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon.

DETROW: It's been more than 60 years since President John F. Kennedy's famous speech at Rice University, laying out the U.S. goal to become a global leader in space exploration.


KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard - because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.

DETROW: His speech became a pivotal moment in the space program, rallying the nation behind a mission that at the time was far from certain.


KENNEDY: Because that challenge is one that we're willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win - and the others, too.

DETROW: When Kennedy took the stage that day, the Soviet Union had already successfully launched the first manmade object into space. And there was a fear stoked by the Cold War that in the competition to conquer space, the Soviets were in the lead.

MICHELLE HANLON: We were just sort of rushing to get - be the first, be the first, get to the moon first. And that was all about prestige, geopolitics - who's a better country? Whose system is working better?

DETROW: Michelle Hanlon is the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. Now, I've got to say, I love space, and I feel like I follow it pretty closely. And I did not realize that space law was even a thing. That is until I spoke with Hanlon.

HANLON: Absolutely - space needs lawyers like you wouldn't believe, especially with all the activity going on both in orbit and now on the moon.

DETROW: She says with so many countries vying for a place in space right now, legal guidelines will be an increasingly relevant thing because this new space race is about resources, not prestige.

HANLON: This is a much, much more serious race and more substantive because there are resources on the moon, and those resources are actually limited. And countries are racing to get to the moon to get access to those resources because ultimately, that is how we're going to have access to the rest of the universe.

DETROW: And can you put your space lawyer hat on for a moment and talk about who gets to claim those resources when they're found? How exactly does that work? What are the treaties? And what are countries trying to do here?

HANLON: So people like to think of space as the Wild, Wild West, and a lot of the dreamers sort of think about getting off Earth and, you know, leaving all those regulations behind. Unfortunately, that's not the way it works - or fortunately, I should say, that's not the way it works. There are actually - there is a treaty regime that governs activities in space. They govern the activities of countries in space. And one of the fundamental precepts is that space is free for exploration and use by all. And that is followed up by an article that says no state, no country can claim territory in outer space. So you can't just go to the moon and plant your American flag or your Chinese flag or your Indian flag and say, OK, this is ours now. You need a passport. You need to get to the border control. That is very clear.

What isn't so clear is, can you extract the resources and then claim those resources as your own and then either study them or sell them? And there is a little bit of argument in the interpretation of that article. The United States - President Obama in 2015 signed a law that says we in the United States, we're going to interpret Article II to say you can't claim territory anywhere, but if you extract resources, those are yours and you can do whatever you want with them. And that idea has been modeled - or paralleled, I guess - by Luxembourg and Japan and UAE. They all have national laws that say the same thing. And we also have the Artemis Accords, which are a nonbinding, multilateral sort of principles and guidelines, which also captures that interpretation, and 28 other countries have signed that.

DETROW: My understanding of that comes entirely from plot points from the Apple TV+ "For All Mankind" series where they are racing for resources on the moon.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Change of plans, gentlemen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There is water...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...On the moon.

ERIC LADIN: (As Gene Kranz) This race will be ours to fight for and to win. And we are not stopping.

DETROW: But that is something that kind of bleeds into reality right now because that show and also what we saw from India this week, the focus is on the south pole, the moon and potential water resources there. Can you tell us what the specific resources are that are the focal point right now for India, for the U.S., for Russia, for other countries?

HANLON: Absolutely. It is that water, as you suggested. Why? Because water is going to sustain life. So for scientists, it's really important to be in situ, to be at the place where they're doing the - their scientific experiments and their research. For example, think about people going to Antarctica to learn more about the Earth or going to the Amazon forest to learn more about how the trees and the jungle helps our Earth survive. We need to send people to the moon for long periods of time, and in order to do that, they need to have water. We can't send them with all the water that they need because that's just simply too heavy. So to find water on the moon and to be able to access it opens up all of these opportunities for scientific research, for the creation of bases, for people to visit the moon as tourists.

The other thing that the water symbolizes or offers us is the opportunity to separate it into hydrogen and oxygen and then use it for propulsion. So if we want to explore beyond the universe, if we want to get to those asteroids in the asteroid belt, which have all those rare earth metals that are going to make, you know, mining on Earth obsolete, we're going to need to get a boost from the moon to get our rockets there. And it would be, again, a lot cheaper if we can use propulsion - propulsive methods that we find on the moon rather than trying to bring them with us to the moon and then move them on. If you look at rockets, you know, think about the Saturn V, that little piece that actually made it to the moon - all the rest of that was the fuel that was needed to get there. And so that's what we're finding on the moon. We're finding nourishment and fuel in that water.

DETROW: So India had this big success this week. The U.S. is talking about returning a manned mission to the moon in the next few years, but that's something the U.S. has been talking about for 20-something years now. I feel like George W. Bush was talking about returning a man to the moon - didn't happen. You know, on and on again, it didn't happen. How much is this a point of no return at this point? How much is this something that countries are committed to and it's actually going to happen? And what are the key things you're looking for next when it comes to the U.S. specifically here?

HANLON: So I'd love that question because it's true. If you are a space aficionado or a space lawyer, you've been watching the sort of pingpong between administrations. We're going to go to Mars. No, we're going to go to an asteroid. No, we're going to go to the moon. And that is strategically, actually, a very untenable position when we're looking at another space race - right? - because China has a strategy that is unmoving. You know, it's - they're looking 100 years ahead. But now this is really interesting. We had a very contentious 2020 election, obviously - Trump to Biden transition was not smooth. But you know what? Artemis survived. Artemis program, the program to return humans to the moon, survived that transition. It survived going from a Trump to a Biden with equal amounts of encouragement and enthusiasm. So we have built in sort of a resiliency on this moon project. So I believe this is going to happen. I believe - you know, Artemis II is planned. Artemis III - will it happen in 2025? Artemis III is the one that we're supposed to be able to land, as NASA always says, the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. I don't know if it'll happen by 2025, but I can tell you it's a race between the U.S. and China to get the next humans back on the moon.

DETROW: And what are the key players here? We're talking about India, who successfully landed this week, Russia did not successfully land, the U.S., obviously, but you also mentioned Luxembourg earlier. What are the key countries as we think about this new space race era?

HANLON: So of course the U.S. and China remain the biggest, the most well-funded, the most strategically oriented towards space. However, India really - what Chandrayaan-3 did cannot be underestimated. It just exploded the way we're going to think about geopolitics as well as space activities because it shows that you don't have to be U.S. or China to succeed. We're also talking about Luxembourg. Now, Luxembourg is really interesting because it has always sort of grown with its financial business, and it realized it had to sort of think of some other ways to support, generate its economy. And a few years back, they decided they were going to become the space resource capital of the world, perhaps the universe. And so they have been very, very focused on supporting commercial space industry that wants to go and mine asteroids and mine on the moon. Also, UAE is a player. UAE has its sights set on Mars. But everybody, even when they - with the sights on Mars, you're going to have to go to the moon first because you're going to learn how to work and live in space on the moon.

DETROW: The last piece of all of this that I haven't asked about yet is the boom in private space industry. The focus in the last year or so has been on near-Earth orbit tourism. You're talking about Elon Musk, obviously, Jeff Bezos. That's gotten so much attention. Is that factoring into this new race for moon resources in any way?

HANLON: Absolutely - there are a lot of companies that have eyes on mining resources on the moon and in asteroids and beyond. So it's a changing world in space. We are no longer - you know, we're not in Kansas anymore. This isn't Luna versus Apollo. This is a free-for-all, and this is why space needs lawyers.

DETROW: That's Michelle Hanlon, the executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi. And does that make you a space lawyer right now, then? I guess so.

HANLON: Oh, I call myself a space lawyer, so...

DETROW: That is space lawyer Michelle Hanlon then. Thank you so much.

HANLON: Perfect. Thank you (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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