As the extraction of resources from celestial bodies becomes a reality, will moon mining be a cause of progress or lead to confrontation?
Imagine watching people walk around the moon on the first human settlement. A science-fiction dream is rapidly becoming a reality. Humans have realized the potential to extract resources from the moon, and have already begun making moves to fulfill this ambition. In April 2020, the Donald Trump administration signed an executive order allowing US companies to mine the moon. While this is historic for American companies, will the world simply stand by and allow them to reap the benefits from this potential planet changing exploration?
Watch: US Pact for Moon Mining
A New Direction, Resources Abundant, and First-Mover Advantages
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a treaty signed by 109 countries as of June 2019, prohibits national sovereignty and military activities on celestial bodies. This treaty took a blow when the Obama administration signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 which essentially made it legal for Americans to own and sell items found on other celestial bodies. With the Trump administration’s new executive order it is clear what the US government’s intentions are now: to be the first ones mining the moon.
Without clear cut internationally binding laws on space exploration, it is inevitable that the power-hungry will try and gain a monopoly on space itself.
The question arises: what does the moon have to offer us? Silicon, Helium-3, and precious metals for construction would be ideal resources to bring back to Earth. If we decided to mine to extract resources for use in space, then mining oxygen would be the way to go. Mining from the moon would also provide an “intergalactic petrol station”, help obtain scarce resources like lithium for the US, and possibly increase tensions between US, China, and Russia.
What does the US being the first “moon miner” have to do with the rest of the world? For one thing, first-mover advantages apply. Space laws are rare and vague leaving room for nations to voyage out into space and colonize planets or moons which are not yet colonized. If the U.S. starts this process for our planet, then they are already on the way to establishing a monopoly.
The Artemis Accords and Backlash from an Old Foe
The Artemis Accords, the name given to a set of rules, regulations, and principles written by the USA on how the world will go about moon mining, lays forth several principles that seemingly work in tandem. Some of these principles include international cooperation intended to bolster space exploration and enhance peaceful relationships, transparency in the form of public documents on individual nation’s policies and plans on space exploration, interoperability of various systems, and the registration of space objects amongst many others.
Watch: What are the Artemis Accords?
Whether or not these principles will be upheld remains to be seen considering the United States’ long history of not ratifying or simply breaking treaties. Starting with the 500 or so broken treaties with Native Americans, the International Labor Convention, the Geneva Agreement, the Treaty of Versailles, Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Climate Accord, the US has quite a history of disregarding treaties. It’s no wonder these accords have received such harsh criticism.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has already made statements condemning this new executive order, comparing it to colonialism and calling it an “invasion” of the moon similar to Afghanistan or Iraq. The legal blueprint being laid out by the Trump administration leaves out Russia but could possibly include Canada, Japan, and some European allies under American leadership. The project plans to create “safety zones” around the moon, bases to guard them against “rival” countries. This is indicative of the nature of this project. The US is tugging on old rivalries between Russia and itself by not including the former in this new pact. We have seen in the past what happens when one nation tries to dominate other nations, we can expect similar results if one nation tries to dominate space.
The Impact of Moon Mining
Space is a mystery we have barely touched upon, but our human tendencies of greed are already coming to the fore. While there aren’t many spacefaring countries out there, the ones who have the capability must ensure that space exploration and resource extraction from off-world bodies are activities that benefit mankind as a whole and not an entitled few. If allowed to, elite members of our global society will not hesitate to buy up all the licenses needed to mine in outer space, leaving a paltry sum for the rest of us to feed on.
Similar to the situation on planet Earth, where 1% of the world’s population holds more than half the wealth, space is waiting to be commodified by those who can afford to do so.
It is therefore in the best interest of the world to follow these monumental changes as they come and to make sure that power over space doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. As we move forward in our endeavors in space exploration let us recall Neil Armstrong’s famous quote “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and let us strive to take this next leap in unison.