The Space Race in the 21st Century

With the ongoing pandemic that took the world by surprise and the US election results causing discord, it is easy for other major events to be buried underneath.

After years of setting Mars and other celestial stars as the next stop for spatial expansion, the world has started to set its eyes on the Moon once more. Last year (2019) marked the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon. During that year, we had multiple announcements and events in relation to spatial expansion were launched. For instance, former US Vice President Mike Pence gave in March 2019 a speech in which he declared that the US intends on sending more Americans to the Moon.

Before that, in 2015 Europe has shown the ambition of setting up an international Moon village in the future. India and China have also shown interest in the Moon, and China is also the first to set up a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.

The Moon, being the only celestial body orbiting our planet, has quite normally been coveted by world leaders for military uses and the threat it could pose to other countries. That is why on the 27th of January 1967, the Outer Space Treaty was signed. It specifies that no country can become the owner of the Moon, and also prohibits the launch of weapons of mass destruction from the Moon. Other treaties and acts have been created on the subject, such as the Treaty of 1979, which stipulates that States are allowed to exploit the resources present on the Moon only for the common cause. This treaty was signed by only 15 countries (France and India being two of those).

The Space Act of 2015 by former US President Barack Obama says that the citizens of the United States of America are allowed to explore and commercially exploit the resources of the Moon. However, it also stipulates that it is by no means a claim of sovereignty of the Moon. The most recent Act to date comes from the Trump administration in April 2020. President Donald Trump signed a decree (without any international recognition, or juridic weight) that allows anyone to claim ownership of lunar resources. At the same time, Trump created what he calls the Space Force to ensure and defend the USA’s interests. We can see through all of these events and treaties, that the world has slowly moved from a stance of exploration and appropriation of the Moon to a stance of exploitation of the Moon’s resources and space expansion. However, the sudden shift in stance begs the question: why has this shift occurred? Why is there a second race to the Moon, and how is it different from the first? What have we found there, and how is this revolutionary for the world economy?

New resources and possibilities

One of the ways this race to the Moon is different from the previous ones is that this time, we are looking to stay long-term. As of today, the longest mission on the Moon lasted 3 days, which is a far cry from a long-term or even permanent stay. The previous race to space happened during the Cold War, and it was all about prestige and proving that one’s technology was superior to the others. This time, it is more about resources and the vision for the future. One of the main points of interest in the Moon is the amount of water that is present on it. It is mostly present in the form of ice that is dispersed all over the Moon. Water particles have also been discovered in Regolith (Moon dust). Altogether the amount of water in ice form averages in billions of tones, it’s a non-negligible amount. However, Regolith covers the surface of the Moon and has multiple uses that are key for most of the Moon projects. The reason why these two resources are so important is simple. Water could be used as fuel for rockets, to be precise, we could extract the hydrogen from the water molecules and use it as fuel. It could be collected and treated directly on the Moon, which would allow for rockets to refill their tanks directly on site. That would then translate into great energy savings. It should be noted that more than ¾ of the fuel used to reach the Moon is used to leave the gravitational pull of Earth. Being able to replenish fuel directly on the Moon, (which has ⅙ of earth’s gravity pull) would considerably reduce fuel consumption.

Apart from supplying us with water, Regolith could also be used to build the facilities that would be used on the Moon. Through the process of 3D printing, Regolith can achieve a solid form that we can build with. Being able to use materials directly from the Moon would solve a lot of logistical issues.

The discovery of helium 3 is also a component to the immense attractive power the Moon has seen in recent years. Helium 3 is an isotope of helium, which is plentiful on the Moon. Scientists have deemed it important and necessary as a source of energy in the future. It can be used in nuclear fusion, a process on which scientists are currently working and looks very promising for the energy industries. However, helium 3 is very rare on Earth, making it extremely precious. It could also be used as an alternative fuel that would power outer space travels to far off lands like Mars for example.

There are also multiple rare minerals and metals present on the Moon. Their presence brings in the possibility of opening mines on the Moon, from which we could extract those resources for use on the site itself, or to be brought back to Earth for use here. It also implies setting up a sustainable way of mining and transporting those resources, as the trip back becomes more complicated. In this sense the Moon could be used as an experimental area. If it proves successful it will open a pathway for space expansion.  It could also help lessen the environmental burden on our earth.

The Moon: the newest geostrategic zone

Another way this second-generation race to the Moon is different is that it is no longer just a way to prove one’s technological superiority, but also a way to gain an advantage over the other countries. It is not an exaggeration to say that the first to find a solution to the logistical issues that come with a long-term stay and exploitation in outer space will have a considerable head start compared to others, which could grant them a long term advantage if they play their cards right. That is why different countries and regions have different plans concerning its exploitation and possible advantages it can offer them. This power struggle explains why the newest Moon Treaty of 1979 was only signed by 15 countries unlike the previous one which was approved by all the countries. The only projects that seem to require international cooperation are first, setting up a permanent base, or one that can last in time, and second, the Europeans plan for a Moon village. The first one comes from a necessity of creating an alternative to the International Space Station (ISS) that has been in service since 1999 and is soon reaching its limit. After multiple extensions of service, it is said to shut down in 2025. That is why there are plans for a Moon base as an alternative to the ISS. As one of the top priorities for states involved in it right now, by its nature as an essential international structure, they are looking for ways to make this possible. However, the cost of such a project is not easy to cover for them and would require international coordination and cooperation, which is not easy to achieve. The second one is in a similar vein, it’s the European Moon village project. The plan to create a space village, in which scientists from all over the world could work from, while also occasionally receiving their family members or people close to them as guests. Out of all the ambitions, these are the only two working for international cooperation, with the addition of developing space tourism with the European project.

This is where private companies come into play. In recent years we have seen an increase in private companies in the space industry. A lot of companies are eager to invest or take part in these projects as they see the potential in it. Most of those companies are owned by some of the richest people in the world, meaning they have a lot of money they can invest in their projects. Most notably, Blue Origins and SpaceX owned respectively by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Both of their companies have more or less the same objective, which is reducing the cost of space travel while improving the performances of the rockets and the means that enable said space travel. Blue Origins’ ultimate goal is to make space travel more accessible in the hopes of developing tourism. Elon Musk also plans to develop tourism, but his ultimate goal is sending people to Mars, a dream that seems everyday more achievable. There is a possibility to use the Moon as a launch area. As the gravitational pull is lower and fuel consumption reduced, together with the energy produced by a fusion with helium 3 to fuel it, scientists hope that they will be able to reach Mars and other celestial stars, and expand human territory through space. It would allow for constant supply of rare resources via the implementations of mines on those celestial bodies.

Some countries have their own plans for the Moon such as the US. NASA released a “solicitation for commercial companies to provide proposals for the collection of space resources”. In other words, they have decided to outsource a part of resource collection to companies all around the world. This comes as a result of Donald Trump’s executive order signed in April 2020 in which he allows space exploitation and inaugurated the creation of a Space Force.

China also has its eyes on the Moon. As the first country to ever attempt and succeed in landing a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, it is clear as day that they have plans of their own. The Chinese have laid bare their ambition for all to see. For them it is no more a matter of how, it is a matter of when, as they are fully dedicated to reaching the Moon. They are the first country in 40 years to attempt to retrieve lunar samples, with the ongoing mission of Chang’e 5 that was launched on the 23rd of November 2020. The Chinese space dream is under way as we speak, as they are one of the most active countries in that area. In their plan, they wish to send the first Chinese man to the Moon by 2027 on the first lunar mission, and ultimately being able to stay permanently on the Moon, essentially establishing a colony on the Moon, from which they could exploit its resources and more.

All in all, the Moon has now become a very essential point of interest for the world, and what will be done with it might shape the world economy in the years to come. However, it should not go unnoticed that there are very few jurisdictions surrounding the subject. This type of status quo is extremely dangerous, as it gives free reign to the different parties involved. But we have seen through history that such freedom is not sustainable. It is then important to establish clear rules on the subject to guarantee a sustainable exploitation of the Moon and beyond, so as to learn from our history and not rely only on the goodwill of the parties involved. That being said, should a new Treaty on space exploitation be made? Is it even possible at this time to have all the countries sign one? These are the questions we should ask before advancing further.

Par OLUWAFISAYOMI AGUNBIADE, promotion 202-2021 du M2 IESCI


Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1979

Business insider France « La Nasa a découvert de la glace d’eau sur la Lune qui pourrait être exploitée pour un voyage vers Mars »’une%20des%20%C3%A9tudes%20a,confortablement%20install%C3%A9e%20%C3%A0%20la%20surface.

Claudie Haigneré interview « Va-t-on vraiment construire un village sur la Lune »

France 24 “China’s ‘space dream’: A Long March to the Moon”

LCI « La Nasa souhaite faire appel à des entreprises privées pour exploiter le sol lunaire : que dit le droit spatial ? »

Mike Pence’s speech

Pour la science « La ruée vers la Lune »

United nations treaties and principles on outer space of 1967

U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act

3D Natives « L’impression 3D de régolithe lunaire, un moyen de conquérir la Lune? »!

Admin M2 IESC