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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the culmination of the U.S. government’s eight-year effort to land the first human on the moon. Between 1962 and 1972, the Apollo program — which saw a total of six crewed landings — cost $25 billion ($144 billion in today’s dollars). Despite NASA’s comparatively small present-day budgets, the Trump administration has now announced that it wants to send astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024.
So far, Trump has provided few details about how he’ll achieve the feat on such a rushed timeline and slim budget — he has as yet only asked for an extra $1.6 billion. And despite the campaign’s moniker, “Moon to Mars,” it could potentially delay Obama-era plans that were already on pace to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s or early 2040s.
Worse yet, the 2024 target date suggests a selfish motive — an attempt by Trump to conjure a dramatic legacy before he leaves office, assuming he is reelected next year. Indeed, recent comments by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggest the deadline was chosen with little, if any, consideration of the scientific and engineering challenges. At a recent space symposium, Vice President Mike Pence told attendees that Trump directed NASA to send astronauts to meet the deadline “by any means necessary,” and that “we must focus on the mission over the means.”
Perhaps most troubling, the Trump administration has left the public guessing as to what they hope to accomplish when they get to the moon. Judging from the administration’s expressed support for privatizing and commercializing space, the few available informational materials about the Moon to Mars project, and recent comments by Pence, the administration seems to be at least considering mining the moon for water, oxygen, and rare minerals. If so, we should worry: Not only would moon mining potentially run afoul of international law, it would set a dangerous precedent that our nearest neighbor’s resources are up for grabs.
The Moon to Mars project — recently renamed Artemis — stems from a 2017 policy recommendation from the National Space Council, a group led by Pence and advised by a who’s who of CEOs and COOs from space companies large and small. The council packaged its recommendations as Space Policy Directive 1, which was signed by Trump in December 2017. The directive calls for, among other things, a sustained human and robotic presence on and around the moon. That effort will include an orbiting space station known as “Gateway” that will serve as a base for expeditions to the surface of the moon.
For help achieving these lofty goals, the administration appears to be leaning heavily on the big players in the commercial space industry, including Boeing, Lockheed, and relative newcomers Space X and Blue Origin. Last fall, NASA selected nine companies for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program; the companies are being eyed to shuttle government payloads to the moon and back.
Of course, these days commercial partnerships are essential to almost any large endeavor. What’s concerning about the Moon to Mars project is that the administration doesn’t seemed to have articulated a clear vision of space exploration that it wants to accomplish through those partnerships. It has shown little interest in answering big, longstanding questions about how our lunar companion formed or what its numerous craters tell us about asteroid impacts. Instead, the Trump administration seems singularly obsessed with getting boots on the lunar ground.
In the absence of a strong vision from the president, corporate interests can hold sway. And among those interests, it seems, is mining the moon.
At least one of NASA’s partners, Moon Express, has been actively developing technologies that would allow it to mine the moon and return lunar material to Earth. In February, when NASA finally announced the first dozen instruments it planned to send to the moon, three were prospecting instruments. In a recent speech at the National Space Council, Pence reportedly spoke of plans to “mine oxygen from lunar rocks” and “extract water from the… craters of the south pole.” And though NASA’s glossy new Moon to Mars website presents plenty of hype and little information, a passage from its vague science section is suggestive: “Ice represents power. It represents fuel. It represents science.”
Moon mining isn’t a completely crazy idea. Lunar resources, especially water ice, could prove useful for journeys to Mars and beyond. Not only could water serve as rocket fuel for trips to deep space, it could be used for cooling, shielding from radiation, and, of course, drinking. And harvesting the moon’s water could turn out to be much more energy efficient than launching large quantities of it off the Earth.
But who has the right to extract water from the moon, and how would one avoid damaging the lunar surface in the process?
As it so happens, a pair of international laws have already begun to address these questions. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — signed and ratified by more than 100 countries, including the U.S. — establishes that the exploration of outer space must be done for everyone’s benefit and that no country or organization can appropriate any part of outer space. And the 1979 Moon Agreement, which the U.S. has not signed but which nonetheless constitutes international law for the small number of countries who have signed on, goes further. It states that neither the orbits around the moon nor its surface nor subsurface nor any natural resources there shall become the property of any country or private organization.
These restrictions of international law seem to prohibit commercial activity that involves extracting resources, owning property, or altering the moon’s surface. In other words, they establish that the moon is supposed to be like Antarctica, which hosts research stations but not commercial ones, and where tourists’ activities are restricted. But given President Trump’s willingness to consider deploying massive weapons in space as part of a “space force” — a militarization that would violate the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty as well as the United Nations longstanding agenda to prevent the weaponization of space — he doesn’t take international law particularly seriously.
If Trump’s new moon program indeed pursues mining, it would set a dangerous precedent. Claiming lunar land, wresting resources from it, and planting an outpost upon it harkens back to colonialism — not unlike the Trump administration’s approach to Puerto Rico, which remains a neglected colony that has suffered for its status, and Standing Rock, where indigenous peoples’ rights have mattered less than oil.
The international space treaties, on the other hand, have the right idea. Our moon — like the oceans, mountains, and forests — is supposed to be for everyone. Unfortunately, the moon has no dedicated environmental movement. So when it is threatened by half-baked policies and would-be prospectors, it’s up to us to protect it.
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in San Diego. He has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, Nature, and Science, among other publications.