Many rejoiced last week when the Moon Express became the first private spaceflight company to receive clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to land on the moon. After decades of stagnation, progress towards further moon landings (and perhaps colonization) has finally been reignited. Although this is an exciting historical moment, we should also pause and ask ourselves, What are some of the possible repercussions of private sector space colonization?
What are the motivations of Moon Express and other private spaceflight companies for visiting the moon? This initial trip is largely driven by publicity and Google’s thirty-million-dollar bounty to the first private company to successfully land a robotic spacecraft on the moon and transmit high-definition video and images to Earth. However, that’s not the only factor propelling private industries towards moon landings. The exploitation of the moon’s natural resources is the long-term draw for lunar exploration.
In a statement released simultaneously with the announcement of the Moon Express’s clearance, Naveen Jain, the company’s co-founder and chairman, remarked, “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals, and Moon rocks back to Earth.”
These resources provide massive incentives for private companies to reach the moon. The moon has acted like a sponge for asteroid collection over its 4.5 billion years of existence, and many asteroids harbor valuable metals such as gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, and tungsten, to name a few. Without weathering forces to cover up their locations over time, the impact sites are easily located, making the treasure hunt much easier than the gold rushes of the nineteenth century.
This opportunity brings up the question of property rights of the Moon and whether humanity will be civil enough to extract these resources in a peaceful manner. Given humanity’s violent tendencies over resource acquisition in the past, greed may spark conflicts between governments in the future competing over lunar resources.
Some optimistic reports of lunar mining point out that the discovery of helium-3, a rare isotope of helium that could be used to power future fusion reactors, in lunar soil samples could be the moon’s biggest draw. As Popular Mechanics points out, a mere ounce of helium-3 is valued at $40,000 and 220 pounds would be worth an astounding $141 million. However, the concentration of helium-3 in the soil is thought to be only somewhere between 13-30 parts per billion, requiring massive drilling operations to capture enough soil and process the helium-3 into marketable fuel.
Lunar mining would effectively destroy the moon’s surface to extract a limited supply of soil-based fuel. If this conundrum sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same strategy humanity has used to extract fossil fuels from the Earth’s crust, at the expense of the environment. However, since the moon isn’t our natural home and there aren’t any organisms known to live there, lunar mining may cause less concern than fossil fuel extraction on Earth. The helium-fusion fuel also wouldn’t leave any dangerous byproducts like fossil fuels do, so it might be considered a positive stepping stone away from humanity’s current fossil fuel addiction.
But if we allow mining companies to destroy the face of the moon, we may lose valuable geological evidence about the nature of the solar system. Regardless, it may be worth our while to establish some international standards and methods of enforcement for lunar mining, which would prevent this sort of problem from occurring in the first place.