As huge tranches of the global population turned inwards last year as they self-isolated at home during the pandemic, humanity’s quest to reach out to the distant reaches of the solar system took a significant step forward. In 2021, this is likely to accelerate – with more giant leaps for mankind’s progress towards new discoveries in outer space.
However, it’s not just the rate of scientific achievement that has been turbo charged of late. There has been a tectonic shift in the official tone away from a ‘quest for knowledge’ towards the commercial exploitation of the solar system’s substantial assets – especially in the US. This profit motive will continue to drive scientific achievements.
Three weeks ago, as his presidency entered its final weeks, Donald Trump issued an update on the country’s National Space Policy (NSP) directive for all US space activities. The NSP diverges significantly from NASA’s official mission statement. “As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth,” the space agency’s vision statement says” – but the policy in the Trump administration document makes it clear that US space policy now means business.
“The National Space Policy recognises that a robust, innovative, and competitive commercial space sector is foundational to economic development, continued progress, and sustained American leadership in space,” the directive said. “It commits the United States to facilitating growth of an American commercial space sector that supports the nation’s interests, is globally competitive, and advances American leadership in the generation of new markets and innovation-driven entrepreneurship.”
Nuclear Moonbase causes friction
Perhaps the most controversial part of the directive was the US’s ambition to build a nuclear power plant on the moon by 2027.
Anthony Calomino, the man responsible for NASA’s nuclear portfolio, said that the technology being developed will support a sustained lunar presence and, ultimately, the exploration of Mars. “The ability to produce large amounts of electrical power on planetary surfaces using a fission surface power system would enable large-scale exploration, establishment of human outposts, and utilisation of in-situ resources, while allowing for the possibility of commercialisation,” Mr Calomino said.”
However, Beijing is not particularly impressed. An editorial in state-owned tabloid the Global Times said that the nuclear goal showed that the US sought “space supremacy” regardless of the damage and dangers. It quoted Chinese military expert and commentator Song Zhongping as saying that “military purposes are likely to be behind the establishment”.
Exactly how this will fit in with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies – and details legally-binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space, remains unclear.
The explicit move towards commercialisation of space from the previous aim of ‘a quest for knowledge’ was also evident in the Trump administration’s recent proposals for an "Artemis Accord”.
The new gold rush
An executive order signed by Donald Trump in April 2020 cleared the way for US companies to start mining in space without any internationally-agreed treaty governing their behaviour. The official move caused Moscow to bristle, with a government representative describing the move as “space colonialism”.
The Accord suggested “safe zones” surrounding future Moon bases in a bid to prevent damage or interference from rival countries and companies. Some argued this would result in a “Wild West gold rush” where countries raced to the Moon to stake their claim.
The leap towards the commercialisation of space is being facilitated by governments, but the funding and development are mostly being led by corporations – especially the world’s billionaires. Elon Musk is behind SpaceX and a project to colonize Mars; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos leads Blue Origin and plans to establish a true industrial base in space; Russian billionaire Yuri Milner is backing the Breakthrough Starshot project for an interstellar probe; with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic/Virgin Orbit hoping to make space tourism a reality for the mega-rich soon.
Mr Musk’s SpaceX is having considerable success. This year, the company broke Russia’s monopoly as the only country able to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles. It represented the first launch of American astronauts from US soil since 2011. Since then, Russia’s more basic – but more reliable – Soyuz spacecraft has been solely responsible for transporting crews between Earth and the ISS.
This transfer of US astronauts to the ISS was also the first crewed flight ever by a private company. It also means the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to the Russian space programme to transfer US crews will start to come to an end, hitting funding of the rival Russian space programme.
In his inaugural address, Mr Trump promised that reaching for the stars would be one of his priorities. “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.” On this, he has delivered what he promised.
The administration has resurrected the National Space Council, which had lain dormant for more than 25 years and operates as an office of policy development. It has greenlighted the commercial exploitation of lunar resources and shifted the focus of space policy towards profit from knowledge. Donald Trump may have only been a one-term president, but the space race is yet another area where his legacy is likely to live on for many decades to come.
A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
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