NASA is calling on commercial companies to take a stab at mining the moon, as it races to keep up with the Trump administration’s fast-approaching deadlines to establish a human presence on the lunar surface. Let's see how fast we can screw this one up, too!
The space agency put out a solicitation today for proposals from companies within and outside of the U.S. to present a feasible plan for collecting up to 500 grams of dirt, rocks, or ice from the moon’s surface. These samples would then be forked over to NASA along with any accompanying data and imagery, for a payment of $15,000-$25,000. Whichever company is awarded the contract will have to fulfill its mission by 2024.
If the commercialization of such a significant off-Earth endeavor sounds unusual… that’s because it is. Space is not the property of any single nation or entity to commodify as it sees fit once it has the technology to do so. A number of space-faring nations under the U.N. abide by what’s known as the Moon Agreement which, among other things, calls for an international body “to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon.” The United States is not one of these nations.
Trump latched onto this in April when he signed an executive order pushing for U.S.-led efforts to mine the moon, noting that the administration “shall object to any attempt” at opposition. Yay, capitalism!
No time to waste — Companies hoping to snag the contract only have until October 9 to turn in their proposals. NASA says it may ultimately choose more than one awardee. While it may seem enticing, there’s a major caveat: any lunar material collected under the contract becomes the sole property of the space agency. In today’s announcement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained:
The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon “dirt” or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA. After ownership transfer, the collected material becomes the sole property of NASA for our use. NASA’s goal is that the retrieval and transfer of ownership will be completed before 2024. The solicitation creates a full and open competition, not limited to U.S. companies, and the agency may make one or more awards. NASA’s payment is exclusively for the lunar regolith, with any awardee receiving 10 percent at award, 10 percent upon launch, and the remaining 80 percent upon successful completion. The agency will determine retrieval methods for the transferred lunar regolith at a later date.
It’ll be up to the selected contractor(s) to determine, develop, and deploy all instruments needed for the collection mission, and they can choose any landing location they want. The retrieved sample must fall within 50 to 500g of lunar regolith, which includes rock “and/or co-present species such as ices,” but payment won't be dependant on the sample's size.
Get to work, I guess? — The prospect of mining the moon for precious resources has long tugged at human curiosity. Being our only natural satellite, it could hold crucial secrets to understanding Earth’s geologic past. It could even serve as a pit-stop for missions bound for deep space, with naturally occurring materials like water and helium-3 available for use in fuel and energy systems. But the moon has also become the focus of the next Gold Rush, so to speak — an untapped and vastly exploitable opportunity for a small few to make unfathomable profits.
For any of that, we need the technology to get there and to bring stuff back.
The timeline for figuring this out has sped up dramatically in recent years as innovation catches up to desire, with competitions like Google’s now-defunct Lunar XPrize and governmental pressure setting off an international scramble among companies to be the first to put a privately-owned lander on the moon. After that, it’s human settlement. Getting to the moon (again) is considered to be a crucial first step on the way to Mars and beyond.
NASA has been under increasing pressure from the Trump administration to accelerate its own plans for space exploration, both near and far, despite the undeniable risks cutting corners would pose to astronauts and planetary environments. By Trump’s orders, NASA’s now shooting to put humans back on the lunar surface by 2024 — a deadline that shaves a full four years off its previous agenda.
It sets a nail-biting pace for the “Artemis” moon program to safely get off the ground, especially considering the development of its crew systems was already raising concerns due to “overly optimistic schedules” before the timeline was amended. But hey, first woman on the moon, right?