This article was originally published in September 2020.
Commercial space enthusiasts, we have lift-off! On 10 September, NASA announced that it is soliciting proposals for private entities to collect lunar rocks and soil. Basically, NASA is offering to buy these materials from the corporations that gather them. This project has enormous implications for the future of commercial space activities.
“Today, we’re taking a critical step forward by releasing a solicitation for commercial companies to provide proposals for the collection of space resources,” announced NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. One of his goals is to create “a stable and predictable investment environment for commercial space innovators and entrepreneurs”.
Furthermore, he clarified that NASA intends to take “an ‘in-place’ transfer of ownership”. Translation: whoever harvests the moon materials needn’t bring them back to Earth. This initiative helps realise Congressional legislation to protect US citizens’ property rights to celestial resources, and gives teeth to a recent executive order promoting the commercial development of space.
NASA is creating financial incentives for private companies to market lunar resources. This could be a first step to developing lunar mining capabilities. The biggest benefit of the programme, though, is precedent. It puts the US government’s imprimatur on space commerce. Given the ambiguities in public international space law, this precedent has the potential to steer space policy and commerce in a pro-market direction.