SciFi Space Law Review: Gunpowder Moon

Gunpowder Moon is the debut novel of journalist David Pedreira. It is set over 50 years in the future, after the Earth has suffered a major climactic catastrophe and has only recently recovered from the ensuing military conflict over the remaining energy resources on the ground. The development of fusion reactors and the abundance of Helium-3 on the lunar surface has led the space-faring nations to sign new treaties and develop mining operations on the Moon.

The main character, Caden Dechert, is the chief of one U.S. mining operation on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. He also happens to be a Veteran, a former Marine who served in the U.S. resource war in the Middle East. The parallels here to actual military history are a reminder by the author of how easy it is for patterns of conflict to repeat themselves, the major theme of the book.

Pedreira does a very good job with Dechert’s internal dialogue, weaving a very thoughtful picture of what many veterans go through after serving in active combat, even if they are not diagnosed with PTSD. Dechert’s guilt of surviving when many of his fellow soldiers did not, including those that eventually served under him as he rose in the ranks, leads him to be very protective of his mining crew. And his experiences in war on Earth equally lead him to want to protect the peace and tranquility on the Moon, previously unspoiled by the aggression of human nature.

Which is why Dechert is so unsettled when one of his crew members dies in an unlikely accident. So unlikely as to be a clear case of sabotage, and the first murder on the Moon. This one death immediately draws on everyone’s sense of geopolitical paranoia, and the nearby Chinese mining operation quickly becomes the most likely suspect. Dechert’s superiors in the US Government mobilize for armed conflict on the Moon, further raising Dechert’s suspicions.

It is up to him to solve the conspiracy around the death of his crew member before he watches helplessly as the military conflict he escaped on Earth threatens to consume his new peace of mind on the Moon. Pedreira’s writing is surprisingly nuanced and poignant for what could have been a flat thriller-only book. His characters on both sides of the potential conflict are complex and sympathetic. This is a book that is as much about the costs of war as it is about the Moon.

And it is that application of the example of previous wars to the unchartered territory of the Moon that we focus our Space Law perspective. Pedreira’s incorporates international law into his scenario by having the characters casually cite new agreements between the major world powers. We are not given a straight new history lesson, so we have to piece it together.

For instance, we learn that mineral rights on the Moon were divided in multiple agreements. First, mineral rights in the Tranquility basin. Dechert asks, “Who signed the Altschuler Treaty? Russia, the Chinese, Brazil, India, and us.”

Then in an additional treaty:

“I thought the politicians hashed all this out with the ISA Treaty. All of the Mare Imbrium was supposed to be fair game for the Chinese. We get primary rights to Tranquility and Serenity, the Chinese get the Sea of Islands and Sea of Showers, and the Russians and Indians get to split the Oceanus Procellarum. The far side’s open hunting ground for anyone crazy enough to claim it. Isn’t that the way it was supposed to work?”

Which includes an interesting provision reminiscent of the actual Moon Treaty, “that provides free helium-3 for the New Third World[.]”

Pedreira even contemplates the need to adjudicate lunar claims:

“[The accident] occurred just as our lawyers were fighting at The Hague over the Altschuler and ISA Treaty interpretations of central mare mineral rights and production reports, and certain economic disputes in the Pacific Rim back on Earth.”

And most importantly for the conflict in this novel, the legality of militarization on the Moon. This is an exchange between Dechert and his superior:

“So you’re telling us that the ROC Treaty is now null and void, that we are actually militarizing the Moon?” ”I do, Commander, but I would point out that we aren’t the ones in violation of the ROC or ISA agreements. We’re the ones who got attacked, and under international law—whether it’s maritime, terrestrial, or lunar—we have a right to defend ourselves.”

This book is a little different than our previous reviews, as it projects into the future new legal sources. I wanted to talk to someone about how realistic it was to expect any new treaties and agreements regarding the Moon in our lifetime. I asked my colleague, Lauren Napier, Communications Coordinator for the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization.

Lauren seemed skeptical, at least for one approach. “Given that now we have almost 90 member states of COPUOS [UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space], it would seem to be a very taxing and lengthy process to sit down and create let alone sign a new treaty allowing States Parties to the Treaty to mine the Moon. I would imagine it would be more realistic to see a set of guidelines (soft law) written up on Moon mining rather than a treaty. This is what has been going on for the past few years to create the Long-Term Sustainability Guidelines and I think that might be a good example of what COPUOS is capable of doing in today’s climate.”

Of course, there is already a treaty specifically regarding the Moon, but it’s the last of the major Space Law treaties, and the one with the least signatures. By a lot. “Politically speaking, the current climate with regards to the Moon is that the Moon Treaty is a failed treaty. It is only signed by 4 and ratified by 18. It seems that while States uphold 4 out 5 space treaties, there is more room now for soft law and the bottom-up approach of having things managed by national law and policy.”

Finally, I asked for her opinion on what it would take for the major spacefaring powers to actually create hard law on something like lunar mineral rights. In the book, it took a major climactic catastrophe and the depletion of terrestrial energy resources. “As is always the case: disaster or tragedy. As most people point out, change occurred AFTER the Apollo 1 fire, AFTER the Challenger and Colombia disasters, AFTER 911. It seems law always follows technology and disaster. The other option might be that action would happen AFTER a State (which I include private sector under State as per the OST) boldly goes and becomes active in mining where no precedence has been set until that defining moment. In that case we are talking more about how laws come about after pioneering endeavors. Another option, we simply run out of resources on Earth and a decision about mining in space HAS to be made. Then I am sure States would want to put their voice into the discussion and make sure they are part of the decision-making process.”

So Pedreira’s predictions, both about the nature of human aggression, and the geopolitical realities of mining the Moon, are based on historical example. The question is whether we are always doomed to repeat the worst of history, or whether individuals can help maintain progress and peace.

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