The following opinion piece of mine was published by Al Jazeera English on April 26, 2020, and is re-published here with AJE's permission.
When astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, it was seen as an idealistic leap into the cosmos – a “giant leap for mankind.” A few weeks ago, the real estate developer who improbably became US President has legally declared that he sees the Moon in far less elevated terms. He signed an executive order that authorizes private, commercial uses of the Moon and other “off-Earth” “resources” like Mars and meteors. Heavenly bodies are now seen as underleveraged assets meant to generate profits.
Invoking competitive threats from Russia and China, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has called on government to support budding space businesses by rolling back regulations and coordinating government aid. He highlighted the gee-whiz possibilities of space tourism (a “Trump Tower Moon,” perhaps?) and the idea of converting solid ice on the dark side of the Moon into hydrogen and oxygen that could be used as fuel propellant for rockets bound for Mars. It would amount to “turning the moon into a kind of gas station for outer space,” Ross said.
The Trump administration is also exploring the feasibility of “the large-scale economic development of space,” including “private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the Moon, by 2020,” as well as the right to mine asteroids for precious metals. If it all sounds like the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, said Ross with evident self-congratulation, well, that vision “is coming closer to reality sooner than you may have ever thought possible.”
Since Donald Trump’s career has been built on claims of “truthful hyperbole,” skeptics might reasonably see this space fantasy as the empty bravado of the Huckster in Chief. Still, we need to ask a fundamental question: Who owns the Moon, anyway?