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NASA Is Soliciting Bids to Bring Capitalism to the Moon

The moon over Washington, DC in December 2017.
The moon over Washington, DC in December 2017.
Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls (Getty Images)

Mankind’s quest to really fuck up the Moon is taking another step. NASA has filed a “request for quotations” for any company willing to scrape the lunar surface for the first off-world sale of space resources, in a sort of baby step towards Moon Capitalism.

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The project isn’t complicated: NASA is offering $15,000 to $25,000 for samples of rocks, lunar regolith (a fancy word for dust, debris and other Moon-crud), or ices, so long as they’re able to pack them in some type of container and provide photographic and textual proof of where it was culled from. Contractor(s) will have to provide their own transportation to the moon, and NASA isn’t even asking for the samples to be analyzed or returned to Earth.

“The material(s) may be collected from any location on the Lunar surface as determined by the Contractor,” NASA wrote in the document. “Purchase is made on an ‘as-collected’ condition. The collected materials may be any combination of regolith types, rocks, and/or co-present species such as ices.:

NASA wants the samples to be in the range of 50 to 500 grams (about the size of a full stick of butter), though it noted payment won’t depend “on the quantity of Lunar material collected.” The space agency wants the micro-mining Moon mission completed by the end of 2024, its target date for a manned mission to the moon.

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The paltry $15,000-$25,000 price tag per sample means any contract will almost certainly be undertaken as a sideline in some other type of mission to the lunar surface. It’s also mostly symbolic. According to Ars Technica, NASA admin Jim Bridenstine told the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability on Thursday that the project is intended to set expectations for how resource exploitation in space will operate under the Outer Space Treaty, which disallows nations from making sovereign territorial claims in space.

The US position is that humans can take whatever the hell they want from space and declare it theirs. Donald Trump issued an executive order earlier this year denigrating the idea that space is a “global commons” and later proposed a set of accords that would create an international framework to explore the Moon and extract its resources. That prompted accusations from Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, of colonialism and efforts to privatize space. On Thursday, Bridenstine made the comparison that, “you do not own the ocean, but you own the tuna.”

(Earth’s oceans have been devastated by this kind of arrangement, though to be fair, the Moon has no known ecosystems to damage.)

NASA also has a stake in the moon due to its Artemis program, which intends to have “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024 to begin laying the groundwork for a sustained presence of capitalists humans there and, eventually, dispatch them to Mars. Extracting lunar resources such as regolith for construction or water for drinking and rocket fuel would relieve NASA of having to send every single thing up there themselves.

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“Next-generation lunar science and technology is a main objective for returning to the Moon and preparing for Mars,” Bridenstine wrote in a blog post. “Over the next decade, the Artemis program will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface and use the Moon to validate deep space systems and operations before embarking on the much farther voyage to Mars. The ability to conduct in-situ resources utilization (ISRU) will be incredibly important on Mars, which is why we must proceed with alacrity to develop techniques and gain experience with ISRU on the surface of the Moon.”

In other words, let’s mine the shit out of that thing.

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DISCUSSION

chiefjayuya
ChiefJayuya

Space Law nerd reporting in. Trump is terrible© and he did sign that executive order, but the US policy has always been to deny the universal commons viewpoint of space. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by the US in the 60s, did recognize that space should be used for the benefit of all mankind. However, the US refused to sign the Moon Treaty in the 80s, which expressly stated that space resources could not be owned by any one country.

The Moon Treaty advances the viewpoint that space resources should be retrieved (by someone) and then distributed by some (as of yet determined) authority among all countries equally. It’s most akin to space communism. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of the signatories of the Moon Treaty are countries which have no ability to reach outer space. Russia, for example, is not a signatory to that agreement.

While I generally detest space capitalism, I also detest space communism. So both viewpoints kind of suck. When these treaties were developed, it was inconceivable (!) that a private entity would one day have the resources to reach space. Therefore, they were developed through the lens of state governments projecting their own rights into space with no thought that maybe the people who move to space would not want to be governed by some assholes 3 million miles away who can’t even figure out how to rake the forests right.

TL;DR: Space Rules were developed by dudes in the 50s who had no concept of how technology would develop. Trump is just playing by the rules Eisenhower established.