‘Space’ has taken centre-stage once again; a spot that it had occupied during the days of Chandrayaan-2, with the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman opening the doors for private sector participation in all space activities.

While that is quite epochal, something else happened in the United States (US) relating to space, far away from media glare.

In April 2020, in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis, the US President signed an executive order, which in effect said the US would oppose any objections to mine minerals from the Moon.

Why would (or could) anybody object to any country mining anything from the Moon, or elsewhere in space, such as asteroids?

The answer to this lies in the so-called ‘Moon Agreement’ of 1979, brought in the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). India signed this ‘Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, but never ratified it. Now, after the US have shown the way, there is a call for India to formally exit it.

On the face of it, the Moon Agreement is benign—it seeks to “promote rule of law in this human endeavor”, and says that human activities on the Moon should be peaceful, never hostile and in accordance with international law. This means, no military bases on the Moon, no “disruption of the existing balance of its (Moon’s) environment”, share information etc.

But deeper hidden meanings in the provisions have been found to be problematic. As such, only 18 countries signed the agreement, including India and France, but not including the US, Russia and China.

Now, in the order signed by Donald Trump, there is a curious sentence, “Uncertainty regarding the right to recover and use space resources, including the extension of the right to commercial recovery and use of lunar resources, however, has discouraged some commercial entities from participating in this enterprise.”

The order further notes that “questions as to whether the 1979 Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the “Moon Agreement”) establishes the legal framework for nation states concerning the recovery and use of space resources have deepened this uncertainty.”

India must formally exit this agreement, says Dr Chaitanya Giri, a Gateway House Fellow of Space and Ocean Studies Programme, who was earlier affiliated to the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Geophysical Laboratory at Carnegie Institution for Science.

The problem with the Moon Agreement, Dr Giri told BusinessLine , lies in the Article 4.1, which says that “the exploration and use of the Moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic and scientific development.”

This can be interpreted to mean that if you are a signatory to the agreement, you shall share the fruits of your efforts on the Moon with everybody, whereas if you are not a signatory you won’t have to do so.

“The wording is inherently proscriptive and restrictive,” observes Keith Cowing, a former employee of the US space agency, NASA, and the editor of the American space programme blog, NASA Watch.

There is a fear that China, which is aggressively pursuing the Moon, might create problems invoking the treaty. This was hinted in the US order where it says “the Secretary of State shall object to any attempt by any other state or international organization to treat the Moon Agreement as reflecting or otherwise expressing customary international law.”

China has its own ambitious Moon programme. It recently tested the Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle (FICRV), a deep-space capsule, designed to carry Chinese taikonauts to the Moon. “It is an important constituent of China’s plans for an Earth-Moon Special Economic Zone,” says Giri. China expects the zone to generate an astonishing $10 trillion dollars through space-based services and manufacturing, and extraction of extra-terrestrial natural resources, he says.

US, through NASA, has proposed its own international protocols, called Artemis Accords “to establish common set of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space”, which is open for international space agencies to sign on.

“Given these developments, it is time for India to immediately announce its withdrawal from the redundant Moon Agreement,” says Giri. Rather than be a signatory to a treat that most space-faring nations have not signed on, India must make “pragmatic collaborations.”

When Business Line contacted Dr K Sivan, Chairman of the Indian space agency, ISRO and the Secretary of the Department of Space, he said he would first like to understand all the implications of the issue before commenting. A predecessor of Sivan’s, Dr K Radhakrishnan, also refused to comment, as did another top serving ISRO official.