Last week, NASA released some preservation policy guidelines for the historic Apollo moon landing sites. It sets guidelines for driving near and flying over the Apollo moon landing sites in an attempt to preserve them. This is probably a good idea to protect these sites, and I'm a supporter of the idea. The publication of the guidelines bring up some interesting ideas which have long been talked about but never really worked out.
The Google Lunar X PRIZE actually offers inventive prizes to the tune of several million dollars for observing some of these historic sites. And let's be honest, who's to stop them from doing so?
The only real legal precedent that governs operations on the moon is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The general tone of this treaty in regards to the historic preservation guidelines, ratified by 100 countries and signed by another 26, is that no country can claim ownership of the moon (or any other body in space).
It has long been noted that while a fine start, it really does nothing to address private operations on the moon. It was created to be politically expedient in a time when it seemed that the two cold war super powers might want to use the moon as a strategic military location, but it is really just for show. We've not really done much surface lunar operations since the mid 1970s, so the scope of this treaty has never been legally tested. Any country who wants to claim ownership of the moon can simply withdraw from the treaty by sending a letter to that effect. If a powerful nation were to withdraw and claim ownership of some part of the moon, the fallout would be largely diplomatic and ultimately impotent.
An interesting question that the NASA preservation guidelines present is: who gave NASA the right to set those policies for anyone but themselves?
This approach will probably be fine for the short term initial exploration of the moon by private enterprises because most people are afraid of pissing off the US government these days, but it doesn't work as a long term strategy. The issue probably wont be flushed out until it needs to be done in court.
I'm looking forward to watching this unfold, because it means progress in space is really happening.