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President Donald Trump at a signing ceremony for the Space Policy Directive 1, which aims to return Americans to the moon by 2024
Visual: SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images
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This year is true the 50th anniversary of the mission of Apollo 11, the culmination of the eight years of effort of the United States government for the first human being to fall on the moon. Between 1962 and 1972, the Apollo program, which registered a total of six crew landings, cost $ 25 billion ($ 144 billion in current dollars). Despite NASA's comparatively small current budgets, the Trump administration has now announced that it wants to send astronauts to the lunar surface by the year 2024.
So far, Trump has provided few details on how he will achieve the feat in such a hasty timeline and with a tight budget; So far he has only asked for an additional $ 1.6 billion. And despite the campaign's nickname, "Moon to Mars," it could delay Obama-era plans that were already on the way to sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s or early 2040s.
Worse yet, the 2024 deadline suggests a selfish motive: an attempt by Trump to evoke a dramatic legacy before he leaves office, baduming he will be re-elected next year. In fact, recent comments from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggest that the deadline was chosen with little or no consideration of the scientific and engineering challenges. At a recent space symposium, Vice President Mike Pence told attendees that Trump ordered NASA to send the astronauts to meet the deadline "by any means necessary," and that "we must focus on the mission over the media".
Perhaps most troubling is that the Trump administration has left the public guessing what they hope to achieve when they reach the moon. Judging by the support expressed by the administration to privatize and commercialize the space, the few information materials available on the Luna to Mars project and Pence's recent comments, the administration seems to be considering at least extracting the moon in search of water, oxygen and rare minerals. If so, we should be concerned: not only lunar mining could come into conflict with international law, but it would also set a dangerous precedent that the resources of our nearest neighbor are at stake.
The Moon to Mars project, recently renamed Artemis, is derived from a 2017 policy recommendation from the National Space Council, a group led by Pence and advised by who's who of CEOs and COOs of large and small space companies. The council packaged its recommendations as the space policy directive 1, which was signed by Trump in December 2017. The directive demands, among other things, a sustained human and robotic presence in and around the moon. That effort will include a space station in orbit known as the "Gateway" that will serve as a base for expeditions to the moon's surface.
To help achieve these high goals, the administration seems to rely heavily on the big players in the commercial space industry, including Boeing, Lockheed and the newcomers, Space X and Blue Origin. Last fall, NASA selected nine companies for its commercial lunar cargo services program; Companies are being served to move the government's payload to the moon and back.
Of course, these days commercial partnerships are essential to almost any great effort. What worries about the Moon to Mars project is that the administration does not seem to have articulated a clear vision of the space exploration it wants to achieve through these alliances. He has shown little interest in answering large and ancient questions about how our moon companion was formed or what his numerous craters tell us about asteroid impacts. Instead, the Trump administration seems singularly obsessed with getting boots in the moon terrain.
In the absence of a strong vision of the president, corporate interests can dominate. And among those interests, apparently, the moon is being mined.
At least one of NASA's partners, Moon Express, has been actively developing technologies that would allow it to exploit the moon and return the lunar material to Earth. In February, when NASA finally announced the first dozen instruments it planned to send to the Moon, three were survey instruments. In a recent speech at the National Space Council, Pence spoke of plans to "extract oxygen from lunar rocks" and "extract water from the … south pole craters." And despite the fact that the brilliant website of the new Moon from the Moon to Mars has a great publicity and little information, a pbadage from its vague science section is suggestive: "Ice represents power. Represents the fuel. It represents science. "
Lunar mining is not a completely crazy idea. Lunar resources, especially water ice, could be useful for trips to Mars and beyond. Not only could water serve as rocket fuel for deep space travel, but it could also be used to cool, protect against radiation and, of course, drink. And harvesting the water from the moon could become much more energy efficient than releasing large amounts of it from Earth.
But who has the right to extract water from the moon and how to avoid damaging the lunar surface in the process?
As it happens, a couple of international laws have already begun to address these issues. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by more than 100 countries, including the USA. UU., Establishes that the exploration of outer space must be done for the benefit of all and that no country or organization can take over any part of outer space. And the 1979 Moon Agreement, which the United States has not signed but which, nevertheless, constitutes an international law for the small number of countries that have signed it, goes further. It establishes that neither the orbits around the moon nor its surface nor subsoil nor any natural resource there will become the property of any country or private organization.
These restrictions of international law seem to prohibit the commercial activity that involves extracting resources, owning properties or altering the surface of the moon. In other words, they state that the moon is supposed to be like Antarctica, which houses research stations but not commercial ones, and where tourist activities are restricted. But given President Trump's willingness to consider the deployment of mbadive weapons in space as part of a "space force," a militarization that would violate the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty, as well as the United Nations' long-standing agenda for prevent the weaponization of space, it does not. Do not take international law particularly seriously.
If Trump's new moon program really pursues mining, it would set a dangerous precedent. Claiming lunar lands, taking away resources and planting an outpost goes back to colonialism, not as the focus of Trump's administration in Puerto Rico, which remains an abandoned colony that has suffered for its status, and Standing Rock, where the peoples Indigenous Rights have imported less than oil.
International treaties on space, on the other hand, have the right idea. Our moon, like oceans, mountains and forests, is supposed to be for everyone. Unfortunately, the moon does not have a dedicated environmental movement. Then, when threatened by half-policies and potential prospects, it is up to us to protect it.
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba) is an astrophysicist turned free scientist and journalist living in San Diego. He has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, Nature and Science, among other publications.