How the United States plans to make space exploration pay
President Donald Trump’s space policy has certainly evolved since the campaign when he was telling people that he doubted sending people to Mars was a good idea with American infrastructure needing to be rebuilt. During his presidency, Trump has set America on a course back to the moon. He has also started encouraging space commercialization, including the mining of the moon and other celestial bodies.
In 2015 — before Trump took office — President Barack Obama signed into law the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which Congress passed, thanks in large part to the efforts of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R). The Act, among other things, mandated that American space miners would retain ownership of the resources they extracted.
On April 6 President Trump signed an executive order confirming the principles of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The EO repudiated the 1979 Moon Treaty, which the United States never ratified, and stated:
“Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”
The Trump administration is pressing ahead with getting an international agreement confirming the right of private companies to mine space resources, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.
“As a follow up to the executive order, the administration has been quietly preparing the Artemis Accords, which it plans to present first to America’s partners on the International Space Station—Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia—and later to other nations.”
Just as an aside, because of recent events, China should be excluded from the list of nations to be part of the Artemis Accords for the time being. However, Taiwan should be included.
Other possible countries beyond the ISS partners that could join the Artemis Accords include Israel, India, South Korea, Australia and the United Arad Emirates. Australia would be obliged to withdraw from the Moon Treaty if it accepts an offer to join the Accords.
NASA has been tasked with returning to the moon and establishing what the space agency calls a lunar base camp to do science and to practice missions to Mars. However, the policy encouraging mining the moon and, by extension, other celestial bodies such as asteroids, recognizes a fact that has held back space exploration since the beginning.
The Apollo program to land men on the moon and the ISS have been seen as expensive hobbies by politicians who write the checks. Leaving aside studies such as the one conducted in the 1970s by Chase Econometrics that demonstrate space exploration returns many times the investment, the fact remains that science and national prestige from the space program are considered optional and not vital.
President Trump and like-minded people in Congress such as Sen. Cruz have recognized that space exploration must be made to pay in order to be sustainable. If returning to the moon creates wealth, then it becomes not just something that is nice to do but a thing that must be done for the benefit of the United States and its allies and, by extension, for all humankind.
This vision of the future goes beyond a small, lunar base camp. A town will grow up on the south pole of the moon, a center of science and commerce. While some will go exploring to wrest the secrets of the universe from the moon, others will extract our nearest neighbor’s hidden riches. Those riches include industrial metals such as titanium and aluminum, platinum group metals, rare earths, helium 3, which could be used for future fusion power plants, and water ice, which could be refined into rocket fuel for expeditions further into the solar system, to asteroids heavy with more riches and to Mars, the far away realm of explorers’ dreams for many decades.
The moon’s mineral wealth will fuel a new age of space exploration, a space-based industrial revolution, and, perhaps, an era of clean, limitless energy. It is a future better and more prosperous than the past or present.
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.