Seeing Double: Should We Mine the Moon?
As space travel becomes more advanced and efficient, many experts say that extraterrestrial mining operations are increasingly viable. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order encouraging companies to develop technologies capable of mining the moon. The moon contains numerous valuable and useful minerals, but moral concerns about extracting those resources still persist.
On July 20, 1969, a small, unassuming spacecraft landed on the surface of the moon. Millions of people watched breathless as two figures stepped onto the previously untouched lunar landscape. Human history would never be the same. Today we stand on a new frontier of space travel, in which mining the moon, if done correctly, would represent one more giant leap for mankind.
Of course, there’s a right way to mine the moon. President Trump’s plan to mine the moon would give private companies free reign to extract resources without any real accountability. But that doesn’t mean that moon mining is an inherently flawed concept. Mining can occur by many methods and for many motivations, and discounting all of them offhand is irresponsible and short-sighted.
The moon is a global resource, forbidden by law to be claimed by any one country. Thus, the moon represents a tremendous opportunity for international collaboration. Countries working together could mine the moon for the global good, and thus create a framework for a better, more cooperative future, both on this planet and beyond it. It’s an ambitious goal, but by its very nature, space travel encourages us to look past traditional boundaries.
The practical benefits of moon mining are enormous. The moon is richly endowed with rare earth metals. These elements, like Yttrium, Lanthanum and Scandium may sound obscure, but they’re essential for modern technology. Smartphones, X-rays and televisions all require rare earth metals to function. What’s more, rare earth metals are increasingly necessary for most green technologies, like solar panels, electric cars and wind turbines. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that rare earth metals are vital for the survival of our planet.
And we’re running out of them. China currently has over 90 percent of the world’s rare earth metal reserves, but it estimates that its reserves will only last another twenty years. If we don’t mine these metals from the moon, our world, especially our green energy plans, could be paralyzed. If we set up international mining sites on the moon, we could gain access to an essentially unlimited supply of the minerals, which could then be distributed equitably throughout the world.
All this brings us to a larger question: is it ever acceptable to sacrifice people’s well-being or even lives in order to preserve some abstract notion of extraterrestrial purity? My co-columnist would argue that no such situation exists today. But by declaring the moon forever off-limits, he is in effect saying that its far-off is so inviolate as to eternally overrule the mundane and firmly terrestrial problems facing those on earth. I am not so cold-hearted.
Mining the moon is also critical for the future of space exploration. The moon contains a large amount of ice, which if melted, can be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used as fuel for spacecraft. Factor in the moon’s weak gravity and you get the perfect fueling station for future exploration.
Scientific mining operations would reveal previously undiscovered knowledge deep in the moon’s lower layers. That scientific research (which my co-columnist supports) would require careful excavations on the moon’s surface.
Only truly global initiatives are an appropriate way to use this global resource. Fortunately, we already have a roadmap for global collaboration in space. Take the International Space Station, where countries collaborate on research and collectively advance the knowledge of the human race. Countries and nations have often gained unity by looking outward. Space provides a unique and valuable opportunity for the whole world to explore the mysteries of the universe in communal space. Mining the moon could represent the first step in that dream.
Critics argue that mining would in some way damage or taint the moon. But that’s nonsense. I am not proposing strip mining the moon, turning it into a scene resembling my co-columnist’s half of our room. Not all mining involves mountaintop removal or leaving enormous gashes in the earth. Moon mining can and should be done with care and restraint.
But even if we were to remove a metric ton from the moon each day, it would take 220 million years to remove one percent of the moon’s mass, and even that wouldn’t affect its orbit or the tides. Since it lacks an interconnected ecosystem of plants, animals and other organisms, the moon is substantially more resilient than even our own earth. In terms of damage, mining the moon is like picking a flower off a mountainside, with the added feature that the flower can help stop climate change. In all likelihood, the resources of the moon will far outlast the human race.
The moon has enormous cultural and religious importance across the world. My co-columnist will argue that our mining operations would somehow devalue the moon, turn it into what he calls “a worthless piece of rock.” Yet the significance we place upon the moon doesn’t depend upon the moon’s rare metals. Extracting those metals would do nothing to devalue it, any more than walking on it or planting a flag has. Just as I can respect my co-columnist while also arguing with him, so too can we hold the moon in awe while also mining it.
The moon has always represented the finest aspirations of the human race. In walking upon it, we proved that humanity can supersede its territorial boundaries and explore the galaxy. Now, the moon can represent one more noble goal: to further test the limits of human possibility, not for greed or national pride, but for the interests of all of humanity. The moon represents a path to a new future, where even as we step forth to explore the far reaches of the cosmos, we ensure that our discoveries will benefit the whole of humanity.
For millennia, humans have looked up at the night sky with wonder, marveling at the brilliance of the stars. Our sun and moon, the planets, stars of far-off solar systems, galaxies millions of miles away — all have captured our attention, embodied our aspirations and animated our curiosity more than anything else. And over the years, that curiosity has paid off in the form of knowledge and respect. We know how the cosmos dance and we know how they’re made; we know that we are one and the same with them. And yet some among us want to redefine that sacred relationship.
If we begin to mine the moon — or any other part of space, for that matter — our role in space immediately changes from the explorer to the colonist. Don’t get me wrong: mining the moon is not the same as mining the cultural, physical and mental wealth of entire peoples and corrupting the earth in the process. But it’s motivated by and reinforces the same desires.
The human desire for control and our urge to expand; our need to take and take until nothing’s left. These feelings have defined the last 500 years of human history more than any others, and they’ve poisoned our minds, our bodies and our planet.
As explorers, we’re motivated by curiosity and respect — to be curious about space is to respect its grandeur, mystery and the age-old search for cosmic truth embodied in the stars. As colonists, though, we’re only motivated by greed. We ask ourselves what we need and how to get it most easily. “We need rare earths,” we say, “I hear the moon has them.” No matter that they’re plentiful on Earth and less necessary than we think. Not to mention that there are untapped rare earth deposits all over the world.
Space — the final frontier, which is just another way of saying the last place we haven’t colonized — is our chance to fight back against our colonial systems and their insatiable need for more. Frankly, we have more than enough materials to satisfy our every dream right here on Earth.
Think of the resources laying in our trash heaps. Now imagine building massive, spacefaring factories, shooting them to the moon and mining a place we have no legitimate claim to just because we think it’s easier than cleaning up after ourselves.
According to my co-columnist, mining the moon is a perfect opportunity to build international collaboration. In his imagined future, the resources from the moon are distributed equitably around the globe, maintaining a spirit of humanity in the face of terrestrial strife. But he forgets that most space-faring is anything but collaborative — after all, the only reason we’ve been to the moon is superpower conflict. Once we start carting down material resources from space, there’s no reason to expect that it’ll be any different.
In fact, our lunar mining ambitions are the starting gun for a new space race. The European Space Agency, China, India and the U.S. all have their own plans for mining the moon. Contrary to my co-columnists vision, international cooperation in space only occurs when nothing but science is on the line — and it can never occur when wealth or power are at stake.
Take the International Space Station, which is one of the most remarkable things we’ve ever made. None of the five space agencies that run the station have any direct material interest in its operation. Instead, all are willing to cooperate because the science done on board would be impossible otherwise. Even so, the future of the I.S.S. is bleak: Russia plans to move its I.S.S. modules to its own station around 2024, and the station itself is slated to be decommissioned by 2030.
Even building a lunar ice refinery on the moon is a bad idea. The parts of the moon that contain water are particularly susceptible to contamination from bacteria and other forms of pollution — pollution that would destroy the fragile lunar surface and ruin our ability to learn about the origins of life from its ancient, undisturbed soil. Of course, all science alters its subject in the process of observation. But there’s no need to eliminate one of the best sources of information we have about early life in the name of industry.
When my co-columnist argues that nothing we do to the moon can cheapen it or damage it, he severely underestimates the human ability to ruin things. Though I can’t expect my co-columnist to understand the danger of human industrial waste to the moon — you should see the kitchen when he’s done cooking — he should at least understand that mining it will replace space exploration with space exploitation.
We’ve never looked at space as a source of goods, whether or not they’re used to better all of humanity (they won’t be). Instead, space is worth far more than its material resources. It’s the object of our most intense curiosity and the source of our most compelling myths.
When we’ve installed exhaust-spewing factories across the untouched lunar rockscape in search of materials we could easily find here on Earth, the moon ceases to be an object of our curiosity and respect. The moon forever hides its scientific secrets. And what’s left behind when the moon loses its grandeur? After colonial alchemy transmutes its cultural and spiritual significance into material wealth?
Nothing but a hollowed-out, worthless piece of rock.