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asteroid mining
Development of a space resources industry will require international cooperation on legal issues, and should be a key topic for the new National Space Council. (credit: Bryan Versteeg/Deep Space Industries)

The National Space Council for American leadership in space industries

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Dear Vice President Mike Pence, Chairman of the National Space Council:

Thank you for your leadership of the National Space Council that has been recreated under the authority of President Trump. In 1962, when the Council was first formed under the leadership of Vice President Johnson, its executive director, Edward Welsh, played a decisive role in the drafting and passage of the Communications Satellite Act, which led to the creation of COMSAT and the subsequent formation of INTELSAT, an intergovernmental communications satellite organization initially with 14-member governments in 1964 that was privatized in 2001. COMSAT was the first major step towards the commercial use of outer space. In 1967, after Johnson had been elected president, he reported that “the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 [has] brought mankind to the threshold of a full-time global communications service to which all nations of the world may have equal access.”

The world is at a watershed moment regarding outer space. Governments have dominated in outer space. Increasingly, though, private investment will shape the future in space. The US does not have a strategy nor is it organized to effectively advance private space development and the emergence of a self-sustaining space economy. This is the principal challenge to be addressed by the Space Council.

The world is at a watershed moment regarding outer space. Governments have dominated in outer space. Increasingly, though, private investment will shape the future in space.

Space capabilities are critical to the US and global economies, and to national security. The range, complexity, and lethality of potential threats and adversaries continue to grow. At the same time, the scope of commercial activities in space is broadening creating demands for US leadership to establish a stable legal environment for business involving negotiations with adversaries as well as friends. Decreasing launch costs are widening opportunities to more players (both US and international) that include mining the Moon and asteroids, space tourism, energy production, space manufacturing, and logistics operations in cislunar space. Satellite communications, Earth monitoring, and navigation, which have become functional elements of our economies, are seeing explosive growth with constellations of thousands of satellites and ever more players and services as costs continue to fall.

The space capabilities that emerged following the International Geophysical Year (1957–58) have provided knowledge about threats facing our planet that can only be recognized when studying the Earth as a whole from space. Climate change and environmental degradation aggravate water availability as humanity faces the challenge of a 50 percent rise in population over the next few decades. These global threats demand US leadership, particularly in the space domain to which the Space Council provides the national focus.

The US took the first steps on the Moon alone. Echoing President Kennedy, this was done not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Success was achieved at great cost. Success gave the US unmatched capabilities to explore space and to use space capabilities to advance US global interests. Nearly three decades later, the International Space Station was launched, involving partnerships with Canada, Japan, Russia, and the European Space Agency. The ISS has been continuously occupied for over 16 years by astronaut research teams. It is the most expensive and technologically complex international collaboration in history. ISS is also a successful international regime that can be expanded to address other challenges with international partners on the Moon and in cislunar space.

Role for the Space Council

The early history of the Space Council suggests a major role it could play today to position the US as a leader in emerging space industries, including lunar and asteroid mining, as well as space manufacturing—similar to the role played by the Space Council via COMSAT in the 1960s. COMSAT provided a framework for international cooperation that enabled the creation of a global telecommunications industry that is now essential to both the national and global economies.

In 1962, the US and the USSR were the only competitors in space. There are now many players with a wide range of objectives: governments, businesses, international organizations, and NGOs. The US has lacked a focused institutional capability to address these intertwining challenges in this complex policy environment where geopolitical, national security, economic, research, and cultural issues come together.

An increasing number of countries have well-developed capabilities to launch satellites and to participate in deep space exploration. Yet despite anticipated reductions in cost, space activities remain extremely expensive and demand continuing involvement by government. National budgets are strained by increasing obligations as their populations grow and age. Well-structured coordination among international partners can reduce costs and risks while accelerating achievement of objectives beyond the reach of any individual state. Cooperation is inherently a confidence-building measure that can also reduce the risk of conflict in areas beyond the locus of cooperation, thereby increasing the security of the outer space environment.

Successful outer space ventures are dependent on stable government policies that are structured to advance industrial and economic development that encourage private investment and reduce risk.

The US space budget has been largely stable from the 1970s. Significant increases in public expenditures are unlikely. Realization of the promise of outer space will increasingly depend on private investment and risk taking. Government must fund the basic research and the higher risk exploratory activities that create the knowledge base and enabling technologies that enable innovation and entrepreneurial development. The US engages in cooperative research with many countries. Strategically directed cooperation in research and development can accelerate industrial development of space thereby creating greater opportunities for US business as well as international partners.

Successful outer space ventures are dependent on stable government policies that are structured to advance industrial and economic development that encourage private investment and reduce risk. A start towards effective domestic space policy has been taken with the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. Internationally, rules need to be agreed to for conducting business in outer space. A particularly critical gap is the absence of rules for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon, asteroids, and other bodies in the solar system. There is not even an agreed-to process for the negotiation of such rules. Private investment also benefits from the availability of suitable infrastructure shared among many users. It is the role of government to advance the creation of infrastructure either by directly funding it or by creating business structures such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, or COMSAT, or toll roads that can attract private investment.

Relative to the needs of Earth’s population over the next century and more, the material and energy resources of the solar system can be regarded as boundless. The implication here is that products built from space resources should experience continuing decreases in cost, much as Moore’s Law anticipated decreases in costs and improvement in performance for integrated circuits. In a few decades, the cost of building a city in space could be no more than building a comparably large city on Earth. Land and resource costs on Earth are expected to experience continuing increases and may see extreme cost escalation as coastal areas are devastated by climate change.

Long-term economic trends back up Jeff Bezos, who speaks of millions of people living and working in space. Bezos is inspired by the vision of American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who showed the feasibility of constructing large city-sized structures in space from lunar resources with artificial gravity and ecosystems that enable sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. O’Neill’s vision initially attracted significant attention from NASA and industry, but as the scale of the project became clearer, public attention focused on domestic challenges of the era, including rising energy prices and the geopolitical threat from the Soviet Union and its collapse. In this environment emerged the Space Shuttle and the ISS.

Research and technologies critical to industrial development in outer space has advanced dramatically. Global GDP is forecast by the World Bank to exceed $180 trillion by 2050, nearly 20 times GDP at time of the Moon landing. The number of scientists and engineers has increased comparably. Now, with a much larger economy and major advances in materials, communications, and knowledge management, the O’Neill vision can be realized. A thriving space economy can be achieved through American leadership pursuing a clear strategic vision to develop industries in space. Space cities housing millions of people can be built from lunar and asteroid resources. Such cities are likely to be first constructed in free space where Earth-like conditions can be engineered, in contrast to Mars with its fractional gravity and adverse environmental conditions. Economic growth is fueled by demand for products by people. To build a robust economy in space, plans are needed to create opportunities for people in space, not just robots. We should also not forget that space settlement may become necessary under extreme but plausible threats facing humankind—war, asteroid impact, pandemics, climate—as well as presently unknown threats.

US technological and business leadership has enabled global air transport, global telecommunications, the Internet, and other key elements of modern economies. US firms achieved leadership in these industries through innovation, passionate pursuit of excellence, discipline, and effective government policies and support. For space industrialization and space settlement to become attainable, US government leadership will need to address these challenges:

  • Internationally accepted rules must be developed for exploitation of the resources of the Moon, asteroids, and other bodies in the solar system. Without stable rules, particularly land use or property rights, private industry cannot risk making the multibillion-dollar investments required to build industries in space. However, there is no agreed to process to negotiate such rules.
  • Infrastructure is not available and has not been planned to reduce costs and risks to undertake space exploration, research, and technology development for an outer space economy. Fuel depots and assembly points, as well as other infrastructure, are needed in orbits near the Earth. Low-cost transport is also needed to attain lunar orbits. Infrastructure will be required on both the lunar surface and in orbit to advance mining and space manufacturing. Large-scale space-based power generation is a critical element for space mining, materials processing, and manufacturing.
  • There is an urgent need to advance medical research on humans under conditions to be encountered in outer space. A significant share of Earth’s population may be unable to adapt to fractional gravity such as on Mars or the Moon on a long-term basis, which would limit space settlement primarily to cities in free space where Earth-like conditions can be engineered.
  • Ecological science and engineering need to be rapidly advanced to enable sustainable permanent settlements in space. Food must be grown on site, waste recycled, and resources recovered. Sustainable technologies would have application on Earth to feed the increasing numbers of people particularly in Africa, where agriculture is reaching technological limits but environmental conditions are worsening.
  • Financing for commercial space development is inadequate and too dependent on a limited number of very wealthy individuals. NASA public-private financing innovations, like commercial crew, are promising, but more general financing instruments are needed. A national commercial space development strategy is needed.

Developing a framework for international cooperation to advance industrial development in outer space

The International Lunar Decade 2020–2030 (ILD) is proposed as a framework for international cooperation to help address the challenges cited above. Whereas the International Geophysical Year 1957–1958 (IGY) provided a framework for voluntary international cooperation to better understand our planet, the ILD would provide a framework for strategically directed voluntary international cooperation to develop the policies, scientific knowledge, enabling technologies, funding mechanisms, and infrastructure required for space industries and space settlement. The overall goal of ILD is to demonstrate the feasibility of space settlement and a self-sustaining space economy by 2030. As this feasibility is demonstrated, perceived risks will decrease, and private investment can increase at an increasing rate. The role of government will change to manage the growth of the space economy from the present challenge, which is to create the capacity to build a space economy.

How the Space Council could advance the development of the space economy

1. The Space Council can take leadership in the development of stable rules for building the space economy starting with extraction of resources from the Moon and asteroids.

The Moon Treaty can be made to work for the benefit of NASA, US industry, and the world economy.

The US government has been a passive bystander on this issue for decades. While the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 is a positive forward step in domestic legislation, no internationally adopted process exists to even consider the question of establishing rules for exploitation of space resources.

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) defines outer space as the province of all mankind (as a global commons), but makes no reference to resource use other than Article I, which states “…use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.” As long as the US is party to the OST, rules formulated for the use of outer space will need to fulfill this requirement.

The Moon Treaty defines a process (as well as guidelines) for negotiation of an international regime that is compliant with OST for the exploitation of the resources of the Moon and other bodies in outer space. In the absence of clear alternatives, the Moon Treaty offers the most effective path to internationally agreed to rules for space mining. A common complaint is that the Moon Treaty excludes private ownership and therefor is bad for business. Article 11, paragraph 3 specified that ownership cannot be claimed of “in place resources”, however, the “international regime” that is to be negotiated would specify the ownership of products derived from resources have been mined and are no longer in place. This is consistent with the 2015 act, which grants a US mine operator in outer space rights to the resource after the resource has been mined. The rules of the international regime can be modeled on successful mining laws and practices on Earth, where mining operators may be granted mining rights for defined periods of time with performance, environmental, and other requirements as well as fees and royalty payments based on outputs.

The Moon Treaty can be made to work for the benefit of NASA, US industry, and the world economy. But the US must lead in the negotiation of an effective international regime as called for in Article 11, paragraph 5.

Concerns have been raised regarding sharing of benefits article 11, paragraph 7 point (d):

(d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration.

No one opposes equitable sharing of benefits. “Special consideration for developing countries” raises the question why people that have not contributed should receive any benefit. To start, OST states that exploration and use of outer space shall be done for the benefit of all mankind, including those that have not contributed. However, neither OST nor the Moon Treaty specifies the form of benefits. Since the resources in outer space are boundless, the greatest benefit will come from increasing opportunities to all parties, including developing countries. Opportunities can be created by involving researchers and entrepreneurs from developing countries in projects and consortia, and providing training and support to the development of their space programs. As more players get involved, competition and innovation will increase, but the available resources will remain boundless, open to even greater opportunity for more players.

The international regimes for outer space need to be attractive to investors and advance rapid development. Excess bureaucracy needs to be avoided. Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on regimes governing the exploitation of common pool resources – fisheries, forests, and irrigation systems. Ostrom’s work showed that top-down rules imposed by governments were less effective in the use of the resources for the benefit of all users of the commons than rules developed by participants. US leadership in negotiations can assure that effective rules are developed. It is likely that different regimes may be needed for the dissimilar conditions of the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other bodies.

It may take significant time to negotiate the international regime. Until the rules have been established to cover extraction of space resources satisfactory to industry and investors, Article 6, Paragraph 2 of the Moon Treaty could govern use of lunar resources:

“…States Parties may in the course of scientific investigations also use mineral and other substances of the moon in quantities appropriate for the support of their missions.”

The Moon Treaty specifies no quantity limit. NASA mission needs for lunar water could be fulfilled potentially via a public-private partnership, where a private mining operator could be paid to extract as much resource as NASA needs for research and development, as well as for fuel required for its missions to Mars. When the US has accepted the international regime, then the same mining operator could secure mining rights and sell water and other resources to private parties, space agencies, and other customers.

The industrial development of space will eventually have an impact on the global economy comparable to major factors considered by the G20 such as climate change. G20 involvement needs to be executed extremely well.

2. The Space Council could lead in the development of infrastructure to advance the development of an outer space economy, which will depend on the exploitation of space resources. Among other measures the Council could convene an international conference on space infrastructure needs for both lunar and cislunar industrial development. There has been no international effort to address infrastructure requirements for industrial development of the Moon, the mining of near Earth objects, or for industrial development in cislunar space. The proposed conference could identify opportunities for shared infrastructure as well as investment vehicles, and guarantee instruments that could enable the pooling of private and public financial capacity to accelerate space industrial development. The conference could consolidate plans for a Moon Village and other successor facilities to ISS. G20 members, including China, the European Union, and other states committed to the industrial development of outer space, could be among the participants. Such a conference could commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, as well as celebrate the launch of the International Lunar Decade.

3. The Space Council can formulate the industrial development of space as an agenda item for the G20. The industrial development of space will eventually have an impact on the global economy comparable to major factors considered by the G20 such as climate change. G20 involvement needs to be executed extremely well. Major conflicts need to be prevented and minor conflicts well managed. The G20 needs to be engaged to help ensure that the financing instruments are adequate and necessary research and education are advanced.

4. The Space Council can introduce the idea of the International Lunar Decade at the 2018 sessions of the UN Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the US can serve as lead for the General Assembly’s adoption of the ILD during the December 2018 session.

5. The Space Council can provide analytical and institutional support for effective organization of the US government to advance American interests in the industrial development of outer space.