Science & Tech

Making a Point with Moon Rocks

Astronaut John Young collects samples on the lunar surface during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. (NASA)
NASA’s purchase of moon dirt is a clever strategic move to nudge space policy in a pro-commerce direction.

NASA is paying for moon rocks. In September, America’s civil space agency announced its intention to purchase lunar regolith. On December 3, NASA said it was buying from four companies, two from the United States and two international. The price for the moon-rock contracts? As high as $15,000, and as low as $1! Not exactly an extraterrestrial gold rush, but for those looking for pro-commerce space policy, it’s a welcome step.

Intriguingly, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine affirmed that these were “in-place” transfers of ownership. The companies don’t actually have to bring the materials back to earth. The primary motivation for the program isn’t science. And neither is it money: These paltry sums are hardly a financial incentive for making a market in space dirt. Instead, the goal is to create precedent. The rules for using and transferring space resources, which historically have been fuzzy, just became a little more concrete.

Space-resource use has long been a contentious issue in public international space law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty lays out the basic rules that nations must follow in space. Article II of this treaty says nations can’t extend their territorial sovereignty to space. In other words, when the Apollo 11 astronauts planted the American flag on the lunar surface, they were marking an achievement, not claiming territory. Article VI from that same treaty says governments must monitor and police their nationals in space. Commercial space actors might be on a short leash. Articles II and VI left the permissibility of private-property rights in space unclear.

All the major spacefaring nations signed the Outer Space Treaty. None of these nations signed the 1979 Moon Agreement, which explicitly forbids property rights. Nevertheless, the agreement does have a number of signatories, which shows many countries have strong reservations about commercial activities in space. Given the importance of consensus to international law, even the opinions of earthbound nations matter.

NASA’s purchase of moon dirt is a clever strategic move to nudge space policy in a pro-commerce direction. The United States government isn’t violating Article II, because it’s not appropriating real estate. And it’s not violating Article VI, since it’s up to Congress to determine the extent of monitoring and policing duties. What the NASA program does is create a test case for first harvesting, and then selling, outer-space resources. As David Henderson and I have argued, “Given the vagueness of international space law on property rights, the precedents created by national space law will have a decisive role in shaping the future space environment. Hence, NASA’s actions can support a pro-business turn not just for the United States, but also for the international community as a whole.”

Speaking of “the international community as a whole,” several nations are warming up to the notion of celestial property rights. On October 13, the U.S. and seven other nations signed the Artemis Accords. Spearheaded by NASA, the Accords are a set of principles for future space exploration and development, with special focus on the moon. So far, the Accords look like a boon for space commerce. In the section dealing with space resources, the Accords state, “The Signatories note that the utilization of space resources can benefit humankind by providing critical support for safe and sustainable operations.” Even more importantly, “The Signatories affirm that the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty, and that contracts and other legal instruments relating to space resources should be consistent with that Treaty.” This isn’t a full-throated endorsement of property rights, but it’s clearly a favorable shift.

Along with the Artemis Accords, NASA’s lunar regolith purchase represent a two-pronged approach to pro-commerce space policy. Both national and international efforts are necessary to lay the ground rules for a new space age. Recent U.S. space policy is not just economically important. It also has international political implications. Renewed U.S. interest in space comes at a particularly important time, as the U.S. confronts geopolitical rivals such as Russia and China, on earth and above it. The Bear and the Dragon are the other major space powers, and while the U.S. still enjoys a definite lead, the gap is shrinking. Defense experts widely suspect that Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon this summer. China too is building up its anti-satellite capabilities. Given U.S. reliance on satellites for military dominance, these advancements pose serious national-security risks.

Apropos of NASA’s renewed interest in the moon, China too has lunar ambitions. China recently landed a probe on the surface of the moon and collected samples. The probe successfully returned to its orbiting spacecraft and began its journey back to earth. The mission is both a scientific and geopolitical coup for China. If the spacecraft makes it back on its scheduled return date (December 16), it will be the first lunar samples returned to earth since the 1970s.

While it is too early to speak of an alliance between Russia and China in space, increased cooperation by the two powers poses a challenge to U.S. space leadership. This makes American efforts to open space to capitalism while keeping it closed to conflict even more important. Establishing a precedent for property rights is a great start. The U.S. should continue cooperating with private-sector partners to ensure it stays ahead in the next space race. Space needs capitalists, not conquerors. If future space policy stays the course, culminating in a return to the moon sometime in the mid-2020s, the prospects for space as a domain of peace and prosperity are bright.