President Donald Trump has signed an executive order, entitled “Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources.” The EO codifies the view of the United States that natural resources on the moon, on asteroids, and other worlds are that property of whatever entity that can mine and use them.
“Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law. Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of the United States to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with applicable law.”
Those private companies should be allowed to keep what they mine in space has been American law since the passage of the Space Launch Competitive Act of 2015. The provision gets around the Outer Space Treaty which states that no nation on Earth can establish sovereignty on the moon or any other celestial body. The Trump executive order codifies that principle and mandates that other countries be encouraged to accept it.
The reason that the United States is keen to encourage a commercial space mining sector is that such an industry makes a lunar base and, later, a Mars colony more practical. The moon contains water ice in the deep recesses of craters at the lunar south and north poles.
Water can not only be used to sustain a lunar base but can be refined into rocket fuel, making the moon a refueling base for spacecraft headed to other destinations in the solar system, including Mars/
The moon contains a wealth of other materials, including industrial metals such as titanium and aluminum, rare earths, platinum group metals, and an isotope called helium 3 that could be useful as a fuel for future fusion power plants.
Accessing these resources could be the spark that creates an industrial revolution in space, based on outer space raw resources. The wealth creation that such an industry would spark would more than justify the billions of dollars spent by NASA on space exploration.
The executive order officially repudiates that infamous Moon Treaty.
“The United States is not a party to the Moon Agreement. Further, the United States does not consider the Moon Agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation-states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies. Accordingly, the Secretary of State shall object to any attempt by any other state or international organization to treat the Moon Agreement as reflecting or otherwise expressing customary international law.”
The specific objection to the Moon Treaty, signed by the United States in 1979 but never ratified by the United States Senate, concerns the provision that classified lunar and other space resources as the “common heritage” of mankind, not subject to the appropriation by national or private entities. Lunar and other space resources could only be used for the benefit of all nations in common.
Space advocates at the time objected to the Moon Treaty because in their view it would establish a form of outer space socialism, discouraging the private development of space natural resources. Currently, only 18 nations are parties to the treaty, none of them major space powers.
While the executive order does not seek to create a new, more commercial-friendly treaty, it does seek agreements with other countries, especially those who are partners in the Artemis return to the moon program, establishing a system of regulating space mining.
“The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Transportation, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the head of any other executive department or agency the Secretary of State determines to be appropriate, shall take all appropriate actions to encourage international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space, consistent with the policy set forth in section 1 of this order.”
Speaking of Artemis, which envisions the first American astronauts returning to the moon in 2024 and a “lunar base camp” by 2028, NASA Administrator has tweeted his full support for the executive order.
The order will allow NASA to develop and test lunar mining technologies which would then be used by private companies to exploit the natural resources of the moon.