As commercial space industry sprouts, big players race to extract quintillion dollar space resources; setting off a Space Race to the celestial.
It is no secret that the space race, which started during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1955 to prove superiority in space technology, led to countless artificial satellites, unmanned space probes, human spaceflights, Moon landings, and Mars missions. However, in the early 21st Century, Canada, Europe, China, India and Japan joined the space race in their quest for the prestige that space brings. But now private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are joining the space race to own land, extract resources, and settle colonies in space. What does it mean for humanity? Is a bigger Space War on the cards?
The Quest Gets Bigger
On February 1, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said its Dragon spacecraft will take an all-civilian four-person crew to space sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. It will be the first time that the civilians or “space tourists” will pay to hitch rides into orbit alongside trained NASA astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. Jeff Bezos owned Blue Origin plans to initiate lunar settlement, not exploration, by 2023.
Then there is “Mars One”, a one-way trip to Mars for 12 men and 12 women planned in 2026 with a clear intent to settle on the Red Planet. The Mars One website elaborates: “The next logical step for Mars exploration is permanent settlement, where crews that go to Mars stay and build a new society. Humans settling on Mars will inspire us all to make Earth a better place.”
Watch: Mars One’s Human Mission to the Red Planet
Although private companies are still years away from effectively mining the Moon, the fact that they are building their businesses on flying private spaceflights, exploring the nascent space tourism industry, and sending spacecrafts to the Moon and Mars, they will eventually extract resources that will be used or sold whether they own the land in space or not. The question is: Will the traditional space giants allow the private companies free access?
The Road Ahead Gets Smoother
The United States is clearly the world leader in commercial activity in space. It is the first and only nation to send individuals to the Moon and thus it is not surprising that the country is planning to be the Big Brother and establish a regulatory environment to reap benefits from investments in space economy.
In 2019, Donald Trump established the US Space Force to organize, train, and equip space forces to “protect US and allied interests”. In 2020, NASA in collaboration with SpaceX launched six astronauts from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station (the first commercial human spaceflights in history). According to a 2021 Trump administration report, the United States is working out space property rights to “encourage the responsible and sustainable use of space resources”.
Right now, the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty governs property rights in space. According to the treaty, no country or company can own land in space BUT countries are allowed to own what they can EXTRACT — like dirt from the Moon. Will private companies be allowed to own and sell what they can extract — like water from the Moon? Will it cause a land rush that will bring chaos to space?
“If you have two competing companies or two competing governments looking to use the same resource deposits on the Moon, for example, who has first claim? Who has access? Who has the right to use that space, and over what period of time?” Ian Christensen of the Secure World Foundation told Miriam Kramer, author of Space.
The Race Gets Closer
The SPACE Act of 2015 recognizes and promotes the rights of American companies to engage in the exploration and extraction of space resources — from asteroids to celestial bodies like the Moon. This effectively means the outer space is now “legally” open for colonization. But what happens when a Chinese company contests the rights of an American company to space resources? Kramer writes: “Today, many in the space industry are advocating for a framework governing property rights that isn’t based on a “first come, first served” mentality. Instead of seeing space as a place that should be exploited for gains by one nation, many are starting to think the focus should be on preservation and fairness among many.”
Space belongs to all of humanity. No country or a company has the right to plant a flag on a celestial body or extract a resource like water and sell it for millions of dollars. The race to own property rights may lead to a scramble to exploit the outer space, like the Moon’s resources, between companies like Relativity Space, Vector, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX — apart from the sovereign countries of course. This means the same economic principles that are used on Earth would be used to plunder space.
The Earth Gets Greedier
According to NASA estimates, value of asteroids could be in the vicinity of $700 quintillion. Precious minerals and metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, tungsten, platinum and gold are in abundance on the Moon, on Mars and the asteroids. Both governments and private companies are pushing to conquer space because these resources have grown scarce on Earth.You will find more infographics at Statista
Moreover, water in the outer space could be extracted and electrolyzed to derive hydrogen and oxygen and make rocket propellants. Both governments and private companies can make their extra-terrestrial travel and deep space missions more cost-effective if they own water in space (asteroids could serve as “gas stations” for fueling their spacecrafts).
Is it why NASA is working to sign major countries onto its Artemis Accords? To decide and standardize how they own, extract, and sell resources in space? Insisting that the agency wants to help create a sustainable environment for private development of space, NASA’s Mike Gold told Space: “We don’t want policy to fall behind our substantive activities, and that’s why it’s important that we focus on ensuring that there is as much global understanding and common ground, relative to ISRU (in-situ resource utilization) and scientific sampling.”
As the colonization of space progresses, many questions remain unanswered. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, notes: “For example, who really owns asteroids? Can anyone simply venture into outer space with a flag and stake a claim? Asking these questions becomes pertinent especially when companies are looking to earn profits beyond the Earth’s precincts.”