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How space exploration will help to address climate change

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As President-Elect Joe Biden prepares for his presidency, one of the items on his plate is what to do about NASA. Space News suggests that while, unlike President Barack Obama, he will not cancel the current program to send astronauts to the moon, Biden is contemplating prioritizing climate change research over space exploration. 

Biden, like many people on the left, believes that climate change is the existential crisis of our age. NASA will be drafted to do its part by putting up more Earth observation satellites. The pace of the return to the moon, not to mention expeditions to Mars, will be slowed.

The Biden approach to NASA seemed to be expressed best by Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator during the Obama administration. According to the Space Review, she said, “If we don’t put some really significant resources into allowing humanity to be sustained on this planet, we’re not going to have the time to leave it. You can’t really do one without the other.”

That last sentence is truer than, perhaps, Garver realizes. An article in Astronomy Magazine suggests that the ultimate solution to climate change will be to move resource extraction and heavy industry off the planet. The notion seems like science fiction, but some very serious people are looking at the idea of a space-based industrial revolution. Jeff Bezos, who made his billions from and now runs a space launch company called Blue Origin, suggests “zoning” Earth for residential areas and “light industries.” Mining and manufacturing, two of the biggest sources of environmental pollution, would move off the planet.

The moon and asteroids are the sources of untold mineral wealth. A single asteroid, 16 Psyche, is said to contain 10,000 quadrillion dollars’ worth of metals. The quoted figure is somewhat misleading. If one were to bring all the gold on 16 Psyche to Earth, its price would collapse, making it into a cheap, industrial metal.

The point, however, is that only by turning humankind into a space-faring civilization can we avoid environmental catastrophe while maintaining technological progress. The fact further suggests that the Artemis program has an environmental dimension that Team Biden would do well to recognize and to consider when formulating space policy for the incoming administration.

American law already recognizes the right of companies to extract resources from the moon and other celestial bodies, thanks to Title IV of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The act was passed in 2015 on a bipartisan basis and signed into law by Obama.

Currently, NASA has been attempting to gain international recognition of Earth humans’ right to extract and own space resources as part of the Artemis Accords. The accords have been signed by nine nations, besides the United States, with more to follow.

The point of all of this, going back to what Garver said, is that climate change and space exploration are inseparably linked. She likely meant that Earth needs to be sustained so that humankind can expand into space. However, the opposite is also true. Humankind must expand into space so that the Earth, the pale blue dot that the late-Carl Sagan once celebrated, can be preserved.

Slowing down Artemis so that NASA will have more money for a few more Earth observation satellites would be counterproductive, if the goal is to find a permanent solution to climate change. If Team Biden is really interested in using NASA as part of the solution to environmental pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, they would be well advised to speed Artemis up, not slow it down.

Developing a space industrial infrastructure will be the work of some decades. The first astronauts to return to the moon will busy themselves with developing the technology for mining Earth’s nearest neighbor and turning the extracted resources into useful products. NASA’s commercial partners will compete to create a transportation network that will send people and tools into space and bring finished products back to Earth cheaply and reliably.

Team Biden should resist the temptation to go slow on Artemis just because it was started by Donald Trump. Biden should make Artemis his own. In so doing he just might crown a long political career by saving the planet and improving the future.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Artemis program Barack Obama biden administration Climate change Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act Donald Trump Jeff Bezos Joe Biden Lori Garver moon mining NASA Obama administration Space exploration Space policy Trump administration

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