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NASA is in the market for moon rocks

NASA is in the market for moon rocks
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If one needed positive proof that the Artemis program is not your father’s moon shot, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThe case for NASA'S Bridenstine post-Election Day For sale: The Moon Mark Kelly's views on Space Force, NASA's Artemis return to the moon are problematic MORE announced that the space agency is interested in buying moon rocks.

“The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon ‘dirt’ or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA. After ownership transfer, the collected material becomes the sole property of NASA for our use.”

Bridenstine went on to explain that the competition is open to any commercial company, not just American ones. NASA will pay 10 percent on award of the contract, 10 percent on launch of the collection vehicle and then 80 percent when the lunar samples are collected and stored for later pickup. The space agency would like the lunar samples to be retrieved and transferred to its ownership before 2024, the year that humans are scheduled to return to the moon.

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The Apollo program spent an enormous amount of money to send astronauts to the lunar surface. The science goals included the gathering of lunar geological samples, rocks and dirt, and bringing them back to Earth for further study. Scientists are still making discoveries from those decades’ old samples, using tools that had not been invented back when astronauts last trod the lunar surface.

The implications of the deal go beyond just one or more commercial companies gathering lunar samples for NASA. The agreement will set a precedent that lunar resources are a commodity that can be mined and sold to a customer. The principle is a matter of United States law thanks to the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitive Act. The United States is seeking international concurrence that space resources are the property of anyone who can get at them as part of the Artemis Accords.

In-Situ Resource Utilization being the key to sustainable space exploration has been a matter of agreement by just about every space stakeholder, with the possible exception of certain members of Congress, for decades. Lunar ice, for example, will allow future moon settlers to have water for drinking and other purposes. The ice can also be refined into rocket fuel. The moon also contains platinum group metals, rare earths and other resources that would support a lunar base and help fuel space-based manufacturing.

The Artemis program can therefore be seen as entirely different from Apollo or even the last two attempts to go back to the lunar surface proposed by both presidents Bush. Science and political soft power are part of the reasons for starting human lunar landings for the first time since 1972. However, the main reason, the one that will make the expenditure of tax dollars more than worth it, is to incorporate the moon and cis-lunar space into the Earth’s economic sphere.

Until the Artemis program, voyages to the moon were seen, at best, as things that are nice to do, exciting even, but also expensive. Even during the Apollo program, politicians and some in the media decried lunar exploration as a waste of money that could be better spent on Earthly priorities — poverty, environmental degradation and so on.

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Artemis, at its core, can be seen as the mother of all business investments, on a scale that goes beyond the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal and the interstate highway system. The return to the moon will create entirely new industries and the jobs that go along with them. Artemis will add to the wealth of every country that participates in the vast project of going back to the moon to stay.

That this return to the moon as a profit-making enterprise is happening under a president who started life as a businessman is not a coincidence. Indeed, Jim Bridenstine majored in economics, psychology and business at Rice University and has an MBA from Cornell. He understands the importance of the commercial sector in any undertaking, even space exploration, more so than any previous NASA administrator.

If the Artemis program survives the next presidential election, and if Congress can be persuaded to fully fund the enterprise, the benefits that will accrue to the United States and her allies will be beyond evaluation.

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.