A Rush to Mine the Moon Will Be Good for Humanity

July 16, 2020
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The children’s fable is right after all: The moon is made of cheese. “Cheese,” of course, is slang for money, and a new study by NASA-affiliated researchers suggests there’s plenty to be found below the lunar surface. The findings say the moon may contain more valuable minerals like iron and titanium than previously thought.

That’s good news for countries getting ready to journey to Earth's signature satellite, including the United States. NASA already has plans for another manned lunar mission by 2024 as part of its Artemis Program. Other nations may have lunar ambitions as well. NASA recently announced the creation of the Artemis Accords, a series of agreements among spacefaring nations for coming up with standards and procedures for future lunar missions.

Even countries without a history of space exploration appear eager to capture celestial wealth.  For example, peaceful and profit-seeking Luxembourg created a space agency in 2018. One of its primary goals is providing a “unique legal, regulatory and business environment enabling private investors and companies to explore and use space resources.” Given the potentially immense wealth that awaits successful space pioneers, it’s understandable other nations don’t want to be left behind.

Nevertheless, the US is two steps ahead, reflecting its decades of leadership in space. A 2015 law affirms that a “U.S. citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell it according to applicable law, including U.S. international obligations.” And in April of this year, President Trump signed an executive order encouraging “commercial entities to recover and use resources, including water and certain minerals, in outer space.”

Not everyone is happy about the prospect of a commercial space race. “The history knows examples of a country starting to seize territories for its own benefit,” warned the deputy director general of Russia’s space agency this April. He added that “everyone remembers the outcome.” 

Some are worried the Artemis Accords set the stage for a destructive age of celestial colonialism. Others contend that recognizing property rights to celestial resources, as the US did in 2015, violates international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the US signed, forbids the extension of territorial jurisdiction to space. The worry is that commercial activity, such as mining, makes a mockery of the prohibition not to annex the heavenly bodies.

But these concerns are misplaced. Mining the moon, as well as other space objects such as asteroids, is neither illegal nor exploitative.

First, it’s not the case that outer space property rights violate international law. Clearly a state cannot declare a celestial object to be part of its territory. This precludes land ownership, especially for common-law countries like the US, in which all valid titles must be traceable back to the state.  But celestial resources, such as minerals, are different. Furthermore, recognizing property rights and arbitrating conflicts do not require asserting jurisdiction. If two US entities have a commercial dispute while operating in France, a US court can adjudicate that dispute without the US implicitly claiming jurisdiction over France.

Second, unlike the terrestrial colonialism of yesteryear, the race to mine and capture celestial resources is unlikely to be destructive. Mining operations in space may turn out to be like the Wild West. But contrary to Hollywood tropes, the Wild West was not actually all that wild.  Claims were staked, and disagreements adjudicated in a more-or-less orderly fashion. Conflict is bad for business, after all. We can expect the same in space. Competition to establish celestial mining claims will create wealth for humanity, not destroy it.

A new space age is upon us. This time, commerce will be a driving force. We should celebrate, not denigrate, the various efforts to promote space mining. It’s indeed true that the “moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind,” but it’s not true that mining threatens that heritage. On the contrary: by responsibly seeking the bounty of celestial wealth, we can do well while also doing good.

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