Jun 10 2024

The Moon Race is On

Back in the 1960 there was a race to land people on the Moon between the US and the Soviet Union. This was very much a part of the cold war, with each country interested in showing off its technical prowess to the world with a technology closely related to that needed to deliver nuclear warheads. All the while everyone insisted this was all peaceful exploration for all mankind. But as a result we advanced our space technology with a lot of downstream effects. And of course there are many legitimate commercial uses of space, which has kept the space industries going for decades.

Now we are poised for a return to the Moon, with essentially the same tensions playing out. As of now there are five nations in the Moon club – those who have achieved soft landings on the Moon (crashing something into the Moon apparently doesn’t count) – the US, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan. We have yet to have a private company land something on the Moon, but we are getting close (this year Intuitive Machines launched a mission but did not make it to the lunar surface because of a fuel leak). What are the geopolitical, economic, commercial, technological, scientific and exploration factors pushing us back to the Moon? It’s complicated, but here are some factors that are commonly discussed by experts.

First, we are clearly in the midst of a new geopolitical space race, this time mainly between the US and China. And again, prestige and influence on the international stage is at stake. Strategists also talk of controlling cislunar space – essentially the space between the Earth and the Moon. This means having an infrastructure of rockets, capsules, and stations that can get to the Moon and back, either crewed or uncrewed. This includes positioning monitoring satellites to keep track of what’s happening in cislunar space, including near Earth orbit.

Of course I would prefer that space exploration be done entirely for scientific and commercial purposes, rather than geopolitical competition. But I don’t regret, for example, the Apollo missions because of the competition angle. I just hope that competition remains friendly. We do have an international space treaty that dictates that the no one puts nuclear weapons in space, and that no one can own the Moon. All missions there must be for the benefit of all mankind. This treaty was a reaction to fears that cold-war space competition would get ugly.

Space exploration does not have to increase international tensions. The ISS is a good example of international cooperation in space, which could help ease tensions. But it’s hard to measure the impact of this, or missions like the linkup between Apollos and Soviet era capsules.

Now there is also a much larger commercial dimension to space exploration then there was during Apollo. Private companies, like Boeing and Space X, are now providing NASA with access to the ISS, and will play a critical role in getting to the Moon and maintaining our infrastructure there. Even if we work things out on the political end, there may be an intense commercial competition for lunar resources. The US and other countries have essentially passed laws saying that private companies can benefit commercially from resources extracted from space. This is part of their plan to bolster the private space industry, making sure they have an incentive to invest in space.

What does all this mean for the next phase of Moon exploration? The fear is that we will see a competition for lunar resources. These fall into two main categories – resources for use on the Moon, and resources to be flown back to Earth. Lunar resources for the Moon include water – who gets to use that frozen ice in permanently shadowed craters near the poles? Does whoever gets there first get to monopolize those resources? Will it be legal to set up a mining operation for rare earth minerals and helium for shipping back to Earth (assuming at some point this will be commercially viable)?

Right now we lack definitive international agreements, especially among nations that have the ability to get to the Moon. Yes, according to international treaty no one can own the Moon or its resources. But also according we have those national laws that state explicitly that private companies can benefit from space, including lunar, resources. The treaties we have state mainly broad principles, and it is unclear how or even if they would apply today.

Clearly we need updated international treaties to govern how the Moon and its resources can be used by nations and private corporations. This is an opportunity, before the race kicks into high gear, to move things in the direction of fair cooperation and to mitigate the worst aspects of competition. I think friendly competition can be a good thing, spurring investment and innovation. But there needs to be rules to ensure competition is fair and peaceful and benefits everyone. We really need to get ahead of this, and not wait for something terrible to happen first.

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