The US is now dedicated to “long-term exploration and utilization” of the moon, but in practice that goal will be shaped more by a scramble of private companies than any mission executed by NASA alone.
Last week, Donald Trump refocused the US space agency on returning astronauts to the moon. But without significant increases in public spending on NASA’s deep-space hardware, the US government is unlikely to reach the surface of the moon or establish a permanent base there during Trump’s term in office.
Instead, the White House is embracing companies that are racing to develop low-cost methods to find and exploit resources on the moon and other astronomical bodies, whose activities and interests will shape future rules about space activity. International law, mostly in the form of the 1967 Outer Space treaty, doesn’t have hard and fast guidelines for what private organizations can do outside the atmosphere, and nations are simply charged with managing missions that launch from their territory.
Countries like the United States that want to encourage private activity in space are changing their own laws to create a regulatory framework for making money in orbit and beyond. Trump’s space advisers say they will clear the path for space business.
“It bears repeating: Outer space is not a ‘global commons,’ not the ‘common heritage of mankind,’ not ‘res communis,’ nor is it a public good,” Scott Pace, the executive director of the US National Space Council, said in a speech last week (pdf). “These concepts are not part of the Outer Space Treaty, and the United States has consistently taken the position that these ideas do not describe the legal status of outer space.”
Pace says the Trump administration will work with other governments and international organizations to develop fair rules for space, but that the goal is for the US to become “the most attractive jurisdiction in the world for private-sector investment and innovation in outer space…the task for the United States, if it wishes to influence how space is developed and utilized, is to create attractive projects and frameworks in which other nations choose to align themselves and their space activities with us, as opposed to others.”
One apparently attractive project: robots that can land on the lunar surface and then return samples to Earth. Startups working on such tech have sprung up around the globe, many motivated by the Google Lunar X-Prize, which will award $20 million to a team that can put a robot on the moon. Though the prize was supposed to expire at the end of this year, its participants have received another extension, through March 2018.
Last week, Japanese startup iSpace collected $90 million from its backers to support two robotic missions to the moon. In the US, Moon Express has three lunar missions planned for the years ahead, and Astrobotic says it will put a robot on the moon in 2019. An Israeli lunar team, SpaceIL, is trying to raise $7.5 million in a Hanukkah-themed fundraiser, while TeamIndus in India is resorting to crowdfunding to come up with $35 million.
While not all of these efforts are expected to succeed on time, they are part of a broader ecosystem of space startups catalyzed by major players like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which recently updated its next-generation rocket to include lunar transit capabilities; and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which says it will invest significant capital into a moon lander as part of a NASA partnership.
NASA is already partnering with three companies—Masten Space Systems, Astrobotic and Moon Express—to develop lander technology.
The space agency is “encouraging a natural economic ecosystem to exist that doesn’t have to be a solely government-supported activity,” Jason Crusan, who leads the program to develop advanced exploration technology for NASA, told Quartz in October. “We don’t have a date to supply cargo to the moon, we don’t know what the economic market is going to grow to be…hopefully, we can be a customer among many.”
The groundwork for such an ecosystem was laid by previous US presidents, who embraced public-private partnerships to carry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station with companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada. SpaceX launched its 17th orbital mission last week.
In 2015, thanks in part to lobbying from space mining startups like Planetary Resources, Congress passed a law that allows US companies to own anything they bring back from space, while skirting legal controversy about owning anything—like a plot on the moon or an asteroid—in space. Last year, US regulators greenlit Moon Express’ plans to land on the lunar surface.
“Only three superpowers have ever landed on any planet—we will become the fourth superpower,” Moon Express co-founder and chairman Naveen Jain said at the time.
The US is not the only country encouraging space capitalism: Luxembourg wrote a new law to favor space mining and invested $28 million in Planetary Resources. “People tend to over-predict what will happen in the next year or two, but we under-predict what’s possible in the next five or 10 years,” Planetary Resources CEO Chris Lewicki told Quartz last year.
These new laws are not without controversy. Some nations argue for a stricter interpretation of international law that would prevent any conception of private property in space. More practically, experts are concerned that national laws pushing the current system too far could spark a backlash or a pernicious race to claim space assets. Russian officials recently said they will bring their own framework on space resources to a 2018 UN meeting to push back against the US and Luxembourg.
The most ambitious plan to return to the moon currently belongs to China, which plans to put people on the moon by 2036, after a robust robotic exploration effort. That goal, however peaceful it is portrayed, has US military officials nervously re-thinking their approach to space as a war-fighting domain. Space entrepreneurs certainly aren’t afraid to use the specter of a Red Moon to urge more backing for their work.
Even as the US aims to match the Chinese space program—a recasting of past, geopolitically motivated space contests—its space program is going through an evolution of its own. While tensions over limited funding sometimes threaten to cast NASA and space startups as competitors, the reality is that most of these companies depend on NASA for funding and expertise. And NASA, now more than ever, is dependent on private innovation to accomplish fundamental tasks in space.
The flood of money into private space projects, combined with a president eager to facilitate them, could mean the next US spacecraft to land gently on the lunar surface will be owned by a corporation, not the commonweal.