In 2013 China became the third nation to land on the moon, placing an unmanned rover successfully on the surface of the moon. This was the first landing on the moon since the Russians (formerly the Soviet Union) in the 1970s. The objective of the mission, known as the Jade Rabbit mission globally, or Yutu by the Chinese, was to achieve China’s first soft landing (meaning no damage to the spacecraft and rover upon landing) and successfully explore the surface of the Moon in order to gather data. The data collected would then be analysed and used to provide a basis from which to develop new technology for future missions. The Jade Rabbit II mission (Yutu 2), launched in January of 2019, otherwise known as the “mission to the dark side of the Moon, was also hailed as a wide success globally. The Jade rover successfully landed on the far side of the Moon (the side not visible from Earth) and is currently; collecting data on the composition and chemical structure of lunar rocks and soils, monitoring the surface temperature fluctuations over time, and mapping the surface for future missions. This mission also marks the first collaboration with the United States since the 2011 congressional ban, as both data and satellite information are being shared with NASA at the request of the U.S. government. This mission is ongoing and as of now has no expected end date, or return date for the Jade II rover.
China has framed their exploration of space in the spirit of international cooperation, publicly declaring on several occasions their commitment to both the Moon Treaty and the OST, though they did not sign the Moon Treaty. “Space exploration is the cause of humankind not just the “patent” of a certain country. China will share the achievements of its lunar exploration with the whole world and use them to benefit humanity…all data…will be open to the whole world. China’s lunar exploration provides an opportunity for countries dedicated to peaceful use of outer space to advance space technology together.” This statement was made in early 2013 by the head of the China National Space Agency (CNSA) branch in the Xiong province. China has explicit agreements to share all knowledge and data gathered with the European Space program as well as Russia. They are willing to share all information with the United States as well, however the U.S. government passed the Wolfe Amendment in 2011 which prohibited NASA from collaborating with China in any capacity. As of today, China has lived up to their promise and continues to share information with a wide array of actors.
Despite this willingness to share and collaborate China has demonstrated their willingness to use their terrestrial monopoly on REE to ensure their security or threaten the security of other nations as the 2010 embargo mentioned above shows. One would do well then to take their claims about using lunar resources for the benefit of mankind with a grain of salt. More likely they mean to suggest that they will use the resources to the benefit of all mankind so long as their security is not threatened.
Since the Apollo Missions of the 1960s and 70s, NASA, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, the official space research arm of the United States, has made very little progress towards lunar exploration. In fact, since the end of the Apollo Missions in the late 1970s, it would seem that America had lost interest in the Moon all together, choosing to focus on satellite technology rather than exploration. The NASA budget was slashed significantly in the early 2000s, struggling to get a slice of the US government’s funding in the wake of financial crisis. Only in the past two years has NASA really come to be a significant player again in the lunar race. In 2019, the Trump Administration announced the launch of the Artemis program, and with it, a new funding stream of $30 billion U.S. dollars. The goal of this program as detailed on the NASA website is to “return humanity to the moon.” A rather odd claim given that since the U.S. landing, several other countries have landed on the moon, most recently as mentioned above China. Their website also further expresses the motivations for the program listing the following goals.
- Demonstrate new technologies, capabilities, and business approaches needed for future exploration including Mars
- Establish American leadership and a strategic presence on the Moon while expanding our U.S. global economic impact
- Broaden our commercial and international partnerships
- Inspire a new generation and encourage careers in STEM
It is clear that the United States is looking to establish a strong presence on the Moon with economic gains in mind. This program launched in 2019 is undoubtedly a reaction to China’s Jade Rabbit II success this year. Additionally the announcement just a few weeks ago that the much talked about Space Force will also receive funding. This Space Force is not housed under NASA but rather the United States Air Force. This is clearly a push to militarize an securitize outer space. Though the Space Force is focused largely on satellite technology and defending “U.S. assets in space” (as of now they have none on the Moon), it is likely that should the Artemis program bear fruit, this Space Force would be directed to protecting those developments as well. This is a clear indication that the United States is essentially ignoring the OST all together, as it brings both its economic and security interests into the lunar frontier.
NASA, as mentioned earlier, was unable to make significant progress towards lunar exploration during the 2000s, due to funding limitations. In an effort to augment their progress, and budget, NASA began to partner heavily with private corporations in the 2010s. In 2013, notably the year that China’s first Jade Rabbit mission was launched, NASA announced the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST) initiative. This was an initiative to encourage development of lunar robots that are able to traverse the Moon’s surface for extended periods of time. In 2015, the U.S. government launched the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. The purpose of this legislation was to allow private corporations to “engage in commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources” (including water and minerals but not extra-terrestrial life). This undoubtedly violates the principles outlined in the OST, however, the act includes a clause asserting that “the United States does not [by this Act] assert sovereignty, or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.” Many scholars contend that this is in fact the U.S. recognizing ownership of space resources, and even though it speaks specifically to private corporations, is an act of sovereignty as these private enterprises are extensions of the American government; and thus the act is in violation of both the OST and the Moon Treaty.
- Private Sector
As it currently stands, the private sector in the United States is the most active as far as lunar exploration is concerned. Chinese companies are absent from this discussion, as China does not allow for private exploration as the state has full control over all industries operating within its borders. The Google Lunar X Prize, which was initially launched by NASA, was taken over by Google in 2010, offers $30 million US dollars to the first two private companies to place a robot on the Moon. The competition is open to companies all over the globe, however, the main contenders have consistently been U.S. based corporations. To date, no company has succeeded in winning the prize. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google at the time the prize was announced claimed “The pursuit of resources drove the discovery of America and opened the West. The same drivers still hold true for opening the space frontier.” The use of the word discovery here is notable as America was very much inhabited prior to the arrival of the colonists. The drive for resources more accurately resulted in genocide and stealing resources from others rather than a harmless “opening up” of the West.
While there are many companies globally developing new technologies and methods to explore the moon, the following is an overview of the corporations that have made the most notable progress today and the approach they are taking to justify their exploration and or exploitation of lunar resources.
SpaceX, founded in 2002, by billionaire tech mogul, Elon Musk, is probably the most successful private corporation to date. SpaceX has successfully launched several rockets into space as well as become the first private corporation to dock its ship at the international space station (ISS); providing supplies and equipment to the ISS. According to their website and several declarations from Musk himself, the expressed goal of the company is to develop industry on the Moon and make space travel commercial. Their most significant contribution to the space race in general has been the development of reusable rockets as well as rockets designed to carry extra heavy cargo. This is significant both drives down the cost of space travel as well as allows for more equipment, people, and ultimately information to be transported back and forth from the Earth to the Moon. SpaceX currently holds a $7.5 million dollar contract with NASA for the development of both software and hardware for these new rockets.
- Moon Express (MoonEx)
MoonEx, founded by Robert D. Richards, Naveen Jain, and Barney Pell, in 2010, was part of the CATALYST initiative launched by NASA. Additionally they received a contract in 2010 worth around 10 million U.S. dollars that included the use of all NASA facilities for both future launches and research. The current headquarter of MoonEx is housed in NASA’s main facilities. The company has expressed that they will successfully land on the Moon in 2020. Their website explicitly mentions mining as a main goal of their projects, referring to the Moon as Earth’s eighth continent, ripe for exploration. The language used on their website to describe their goals is reminiscent of the colonists as they glorify the idea of a new world waiting to be discovered.
The Moon has only been reached by government superpowers, but new advances in technology are bringing the Moon within reach of everyone. Soon we can all set sail as explorers to Earth’s 8th continent, seeking new knowledge, opportunity and adventure. We are blazing a trail to the Moon to seek and harvest these resources to support a new space renaissance…
MoonEx, while a private corporation seems to align with the expressed goals of the United States government as they too are looking for economic gains. Additionally the fact that they are actually operating out of NASA headquarters makes it very difficult to suggest that the private enterprise goals are not a direct extension of the U.S. government. Therefore, any potential gains made by the corporation are likely to be claimed by the state itself.