Japanese perspective on US strategy on space resources

Published: April 21, 2020 5:44 PM

Thus, this new Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, instead of using SPD framework, would have a serious implication.

Another important clarification that this Executive Order made was that the United States does not regard planetary resources as part of the Global Commons.Another important clarification that this Executive Order made was that the United States does not regard planetary resources as part of the Global Commons. (Representative image)

By Kazuto Suzuki

President Trump issued a new Executive Order on space resources, unlike former Space Policy Directives (SPD), on April 6th in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. SPDs sets objectives for the Administration how to conduct space policy whereas Executive Order has legally binding power to execute the decision by the Administration, and Congress and Supreme Court shall respect them as a national decision. Thus, this new Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, instead of using SPD framework, would have a serious implication.

However, the contents of this Executive Order seem to be vague and poor at best. In Section 1, it reiterates the objective of SPD-1, which defines the aim of US human space mission is on Moon and then Mars and beyond, and the right of the United States to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space. Section 2 categorically denies the Moon Agreement which categorizes resources in outer space is a common heritage of mankind. Section 3 encourages international cooperation. These US positions on resources in outer space are well-known and there is not much that this Executive Order added to the course of US space policy.

Nevertheless, the Executive Order clarifies that the US is aggressively pursuing commercial exploration of planetary resources based on the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 and that the Trump Administration is fully committed to the Artemis program to land on the Moon. Initially, it is aiming at return to the Moon before Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) land on it. But the lunar landing has implications on commercial resource extraction. This Executive Order encourages NASA to focus on finding resources on the lunar surface.

Another important clarification that this Executive Order made was that the United States does not regard planetary resources as part of the Global Commons. Although, as a party to Outer Space Treaty which prohibits the national appropriation of Moon and celestial bodies, the United States believes that commercial exploitation is different from national appropriation and allowing commercial activities may contribute to the national power in space. Since the lack of national appropriation will not provide legal protection for these commercial activities in space, the US recognizes the right of property and ownership of those resources by commercial entities. This cannot be done if the US recognizes space as “Global Commons”.

The other important point in this Executive Order is the encouragement of “international support for the public and private recovery and use of resources in outer space”, despite Trump Administration is notoriously known its hostility towards international cooperation. This is largely because of the cost of reaching the Moon will be extremely expensive and it requires international support. Also, the US wants to establish its position on the exploitation of space resources through its international program such as Lunar Gateway, which is to establish space station in cislunar orbit. European Space Agency (ESA), Russian Space Agency(Roscosmos) and Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are already committed to the Gateway program. Japan has already shown its interest to support lunar landing and exploration of resources. Some Japanese company, such as ispace, aims at private exploitation of lunar resources.

However, the commercial reality of extracting resources from Lunar surface depends whether there are enough resources. A private company may extract resources but the only buyer is NASA or international partners that are active on the Moon. I don’t think there will be a “market” where private industry can make a profitable business with resources. The only business model that I can think of for the next couple of decades is contracting with national agencies which have the plan to build a permanent base or continuous activities on the Moon.

(The author is Professor of International Political Economy, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University. Views expressed are personal.)

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