Trump's Plan to Mine the Moon Is Just Lunar Capitalism Virtue Signalling

Trump thinks of outer space as the realm of "rich guys," and his push to mine the Moon is no different from his support for industrial extraction on Earth, even if it isn't feasible for decades to come.
May 8, 2020, 12:00pm
Trump in Arizona in February. ​Image: Gage Skidmore
Trump in Arizona in February. Image: Gage Skidmore

Humans have mined mountains, valleys, and the seafloor with abandon, so it’s no wonder we’ve begun pondering how to mine the Moon. Though lunar mining has been an enduring trope in science fiction and a topic of speculative debate for decades, the Trump administration is now working to lay the legal groundwork for the U.S. to extract minerals, water, and other resources from the Moon’s surface.

In the coming weeks, the administration will float a new agreement called the Artemis Accords that “aims to provide a framework under international law for companies to own the resources they mine,” according to a Reuters exclusive published on Tuesday. This effort follows an executive order issued by President Trump on April 6 which declared that “the United States does not view [outer space] as a global commons.”

Does this mean we’ll be running a supply chain of luxury lunar imports in the near future? Probably not. There are immense technical, legal, ethical, and geopolitical challenges that need to be addressed before mining on the Moon will ever become a reality. But Trump might see a political benefit in pressing for these accords in the same way that he has cheered on extraction industries on Earth. It’s a way of virtue signalling that commercial mining, which Trump associociates with a “great” past we must revive “again,” will also pave the road into the American future in outer space.

This push to enable a legal framework for extracting resources on the Moon, and other celestial bodies, predates the Trump administration. In 2015, for instance, President Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which promotes “the right of US citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference.” A future of American mines on the Moon, it seems, is a rare bipartisan goal in the US.

There are plenty of good-faith arguments to be had about the complexities that need to be addressed before we send prospectors to the Moon. Critics of the American push for off-Earth mining have emphasized that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by more than 100 countries including the US, promoted a vision of shared and peaceful exploration of outer space, by and for all nations, that understandably remains appealing to many people.

Members of the Russian space community have also expressed concerns about Trump’s April executive order claiming that the US has legal grounds to extract resources from the Moon.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, tweeted in Russian on Wednesday that “the principle of invasion is the same, whether it be the Moon or Iraq” by creating “a coalition of willing” that bypasses international agencies. “Only Iraq or Afghanistan will come out of this,” Rogozin concluded.

On the other hand, if humans do want to travel to the Moon, or more distant destinations such as Mars, we will need to extract resources such as water, oxygen, and fuel from these planetary bodies, if only for life support and scientific research. But the Artemis Accord already goes beyond bare necessity, laying the groundwork for companies to own, and presumably sell, the resources they mine.

Notably, this is coming from the Trump administration and not Trump himself (I could not find any footage of Trump speaking specifically to the issue of mining on the Moon, though we may hear more about that from him if the Artemis Accords do come to fruition.) However, Trump does seem to regard American commercial and military exploitation of space as the inevitable outcome of our national space policy, as money-making or “war-fighting” applications of spaceflight seem to excite him more than its public interests. He has even hinted that federal actors, such as NASA, will be left in the off-Earth dust by their corporate partners.

“You know, I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets,” Trump said at a June 2018 meeting with the National Space Council. “So all of those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much. Just go ahead. If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy and you’ll be even more famous.”

When Trump says “our real estate,” he is talking about NASA’s space facilities across the country, which lease out equipment and property, such as launch pads, to commercial partners like SpaceX. In those remarks, he implies that private space companies are likely to “beat us”—presumably, beat NASA (and the American taxpayer)—to destinations like Mars.

Indeed, according to the transcript, Trump then added: “But you know what? If—as long as he’s—as long as it’s an American rich person, that’s good. Okay? (Laughter.) They can beat us. (Applause.) We’ll save a little money, and they can beat us and we’re taking full credit for it. Don’t worry about it. (Laughter.)”

These remarks track with Trump’s general worldview of transactionality, shrugging acceptance of advantages conferred to the wealthy, and hunger for praise and “credit,” regardless of whether it’s earned. It’s also not the only time that he has characterized NASA as a landlord or agent that services the private space industry, as opposed to a public partner that has played an essential role in developing commercial space efforts in the first place.

“We’re having rich guys use it and pay us rent,” Trump remarked during an Oval Office event to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. “I like that. I almost like that better, [NASA administrator] Jim [Bridenstine], if you want to know the truth, that we don’t have to put up so much money. We’ve been watching a lot of rich guys sending up rockets and that goes to our credit, and it goes to their credit also, but we like it.”

Though Trump hasn’t spoken at length about resource extraction on the Moon and other bodies, odds are good that he views extraterrestrial mining in a similar light. If commercial actors such as Jeff Bezos are, in his mind, the inevitable benefactors of lunar and Martian human exploration, it follows that they will also inherit the spoils of extraterrestrial resources.

Moreover, Trump seems constitutionally opposed to federal regulations on private industry, which would further concentrate power in space in the commercial or military sectors, and away from the public and research spheres. In his 2018 speech, for instance, he announced that US federal agencies would be updating regulations with regards to space traffic management, before reflexively adding that the government should not let regulations get “too out of control, please.”

This vision of American space exploration as, unavoidably, a playground for the corporate class is not unique to Trump. Indeed, it has been prophesied about in science fiction stories ranging from the 2009 film Moon to the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin. While I would never bet on the human future in space—or anywhere—being utopian, Trump’s view still seems like an especially grim chart to plot.

Fortunately, much of this discussion is esoteric at the moment, and I personally doubt that extraterrestrial mining on meaningful scales will be feasible for at least a generation. That said, if humans are serious about expanding our footprint in space, it’s worth considering what aims and values we intend to bring with us. Let’s hope “rich guys who love rockets” are not the only people who shape that future.

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