Envisioning the Future of Lunar Exploration: A Community Review of Lunar Payloads

A community review for Lunar payloads aims to capture diverse perspectives and insights from within the community and serves as an avenue to receive feedback from the community, provide stop-gap regulation and incentivize good behaviour as the number and complexity of Lunar missions grow.

Payload: the load carried by an aircraft or spacecraft consisting of people or things (such as passengers or instruments) necessary to the purpose of the flight

Throughout the annals of human history, we've been driven to explore, to uncover the secrets veiled beyond our reach. This exploration is driven by the tools we use to understand our environment. Payloads are these tools; the most tangible mechanisms for humanity to extend our presence to the Lunar environment. They are our means to understand the landscape for scientific and commercial interest. Payloads also provide new paradigms of appreciation of the Moon. The photos taken by cameras on Lunar vehicles have altered our understanding of the Lunar terrain and composition, inspired interest in space exploration, and allowed the general public to connect with the wonders of the cosmos. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (LRO) extensive mapping of the Lunar surface has directly contributed to the recent push spearheaded by the commercial industry to develop resource utilization techniques on the Moon. The Chandrayaan-1 Moon Impact Probe played a crucial role in confirming the presence of water and hydroxyl molecules on the Lunar surface. The Apollo program’s Lunar rovers enabled astronauts to access areas of scientific interest that would have been difficult to reach otherwise. New missions, each with its unique purpose and mission objectives, have constantly pushed the bounds of our understanding.

However, there have been payloads on Lunar missions that have caused controversy (among them, the plan to send human remains and biological material to the Lunar surface). Situations like these have raised the question:

Who regulates what is being sent to the Moon?

When it comes to the governance of space missions and their payloads the Outer Space Treaty (OST) is often cited, with Articles that cover several areas of interest including free access to all areas, no claim of sovereignty, and rendering assistance in emergency situations. In addition to the OST, The UN Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) published Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTS Guidelines) which provide some additional guidance. LTS guidelines suggest regulations to enhance the long-term sustainability of outer space activities without prescribing limitations to existing initiatives, as well as minimizing the environmental impact of manufacturing and launching space assets. At the national level, in the U.S. the FAA reviews all payloads to be launched or re-entered under an FAA license to determine effects on public health and safety, safety of property, national security, and any international obligations of the applicants. There are several other international treaties (including the COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy, Hague International Space Resources Governance Working Group, and the Moon Treaty) - however none explicitly set guidelines or governance frameworks for payload management, especially pertaining to other celestial bodies. 

It’s possible to look to the Earth for some guidance. Antarctica is a remote, desolate region that is still difficult to travel to and is ripe for science. The Antarctic Treaty could serve as a helpful analogue for Lunar exploration. The Antarctic Treaty forbids territorial claims and preserves the land for scientific research. However, it still allows users to use in-situ resources. In addition to the technical rationale, a Lunar treaty and/or the further development of existing treaties and frameworks in a similar vein to the Antarctic treaty can use scientific research as a means to elicit international cooperation.

All this being said, governance frameworks on the international stage can take years and often decades to be developed, codified, and accepted by the international community, a timeline that will not keep up with the current pace of humanity’s expansion into the Lunar environment. Already, governments are acknowledging that overregulating this nascent industry this early on could stymie innovation, as shown when the U.S. Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 to prevent overregulation of the then-nascent private spaceflight industry.

The question then really becomes, how do we establish norms of behaviour without regulations?

Instead of a top-down approach of creating guidelines to establish good behaviour in Lunar exploration, why not a bottom-up approach that incorporates the input of experts, stakeholders, and the broader community to inform best practices for the use of Lunar resources and the types of payloads to satisfy this goal? In her seminal work “Governing the Commons”, Elinor Ostrom focused her research on studying real-world examples of common pool resource management, such as irrigation systems, forests, and fisheries. Ostrom identified several key factors that contribute to the successful self-governance of these resources, one of which was collective choice arenas: involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process ensures that diverse perspectives are considered and that decisions are accepted by the community. In addition, most stakeholders affected by the rules and constraints can participate in their modification. Ostrom's research highlighted the importance of understanding the socio-economic and environmental contexts in which common pool resources are managed and demonstrated that under certain conditions, communities can develop effective governance systems without relying on external authorities. Her work has had a significant impact on environmental policy and has influenced discussions on natural resource management and sustainability.

There are several examples of community-driven change from other industries that have allowed for the rapid growth of technology while sticking to core principles. Some of these models are highlighted below.

  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a standards development organization (SDO) for the Internet, makes voluntary standards and guidelines that are adopted by users of the Internet; however the IETF does not have control over the Internet. All IETF participants are volunteers, and the organization works on consensus-based decision-making. Particularly of interest is the rough consensus model, used as a consensus decision-making tool to indicate the general sense of the group regarding a matter being decided.

  • The International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling (ISEAL) alliance seeks to strengthen sustainability standards for the benefit of people and the environment. ISEAL’s Code of Good Practice for Sustainability Systems is developed in consultation with stakeholders and overseen by a Steering Group in addition to a technical committee. The Steering Group, which serves in an advisory role to the technical committee, is composed of members with expertise in credible and effective sustainability systems.

  • The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) seeks to improve the transparency of development and aid resources. IATI uses Communities of Practice (COP) and Working Groups to facilitate input from a community to inform specific target areas and the overall strategic plan of the organization.

A community review for Lunar payloads aims to capture diverse perspectives and insights from within the community and serves as an avenue to receive feedback from the community, provide stop-gap regulation and incentivize good behaviour as the number and complexity of Lunar missions grow. The Moon may be training grounds for our exploration of other celestial bodies, but it is also where we will pioneer new methods of sustainable and cooperative exploration. It is imperative for us to explore responsibly and set a precedent for future explorers of our cosmos while ensuring that moral hazards don’t prevent the continued scientific and commercial exploration of the Moon. Open Lunar is currently discussing with stakeholders and industry experts a framework and methodology for a community-driven payload review, ideas for which will be presented in future blog posts. If you are interested in the project scope or getting involved, please reach out to Abbhinav (abbhinav.murali@gmail.com) or contact@openlunar.org

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author as part of a Research Fellowship at Open Lunar Foundation, and do not reflect the opinions or views of any organization the author is affiliated with, including current and prior employers.