This week, NASA postponed a highly anticipated rocket launch after discovering an issue with one of the engines. It delayed a key stage of the space agency’s Artemis missions, which aim to eventually establish a long-term human presence on the moon’s surface and begin building a lunar economy. Part of that is extracting precious metals and minerals to bring back to Earth.
And speed is of the essence. The U.S. and China are in a new space race to get humans to the moon.
Peter Garretson is a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams.
Peter Garretson: So our efforts to go to the moon this time are not really principally about signaling to a global audience our relative technological prowess. This is principally about pursuing economic hard power and advantage about who will have preferential access to the jobs of the future, to the economy of the future. And the moon is absolutely central to that incorporation of the inner solar system into the Earth’s economic sphere because it’s close, because it has low gravity, because it is resource rich. And of course, if a foreign power can limit your access to resources, like on Earth you can see Russia limiting access to natural gas for Europe, you lose national security in that exchange,
Kimberly Adams: What kinds of industries do you imagine being set up on the moon to create that economic engine?
Garretson: The very first thing that you’ll see are going to be industries that support civil spaceflight itself. So you’ll see the early attempts to use the vast Great Lakes’ worth of ice in the lunar south pole to get water. Water that can sustain astronauts and reduce the logistics load to the moon. Water that can be turned into hydrogen and oxygen and that can be used for rocket fuel. And then you’ll start to see metal production, and that metal production probably will initially be to help sort of set up and support lunar base operations for industrial processes.
Adams: This project is projected to cost something like $93 billion for U.S. taxpayers, more than expected as many programs, like this, end up running over. Why does the government think this is worth the cost right now?
Garretson: I think at the core of it is great power competition. It is the concern that if we allow China to continue moving at its pace without, you know, increasing our own efforts, that would have hugely detrimental effects if the United States ceased to be the lead actor and the benefiting economic actor in that domain.
Adams: Who then controls who gets to have access to resources on the moon?
Garretson: Right now, the United States and China are both a party to the Outer Space Treaty. And the Outer Space Treaty essentially says that the moon and space are free to access by any nation. And of course, the moon is quite big, though, perhaps not everything that everyone would want on the moon is equally available. The Outer Space Treaty was basically a gentlemen’s agreement among nations that has extremely weak enforcement. And as long as both sides choose to play by the rules, then it’s a very cooperative game of you do what you want, we’ll do what we want and we’ll sort of act with due regard for each other’s interests. So, if the Chinese behavior in Antarctica, in their near seas abroad and the South China Sea and the East China Sea, are indications, then we have to be worried that China will use every effort to propagand[ize] this peaceful use of outer space, while in fact trying to do all the things they tried to do on Earth of corralling and controlling the resources.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
To learn about the ongoing Artemis project, NASA has information about the stages of the missions that you can check out.
And if you want to read about the defense and national security aspects of the program, military news site Defense One has an article about it that includes more thoughts from Garretson.
The Artemis I mission is more than a test flight. It’s packed with experiments and projects that are impressive in their own right. Like, satellites mapping ice on the moon’s surface or a “solar sail” heading for an asteroid, according to the science journal Nature.
The eventual goal of all of this is to get humans to Mars. So there are also humanlike mannequins on board the spacecraft to better understand radiation’s effect on astronauts. CNN reports that there’s one named Commander Moonkin Campos, which will help test the space suits the explorers will wear. His name was picked by a public contest, by the way.
And The Tampa Bay Times has a piece on Zohar and Helga, two mannequin torsos modeled after women’s bodies because women have a higher risk of breast cancer from radiation exposure. NASA didn’t use special radiation protection on the Apollo missions because the astronauts were in space such a short time. And back then, the impact of radiation wasn’t studied on female astronauts because there simply weren’t any.
This time around, NASA aims to change that.
Lastly, that moon metal extraction and future production … well, that hasn’t exactly been figured out yet.
In fact, NASA has a challenge for students to come up with their own proposals for building this infrastructure. Teams can get up to $180,000 to study and write technical papers, ones that might even be funded and developed by NASA if they’re “flight-ready.”
The deadline for signing up is the end of the month. So students, it’s time to sharpen your pencils, or charge your computers, and get to work.
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