In the Sixties, political rivalries between America and Russia propelled humanity to the moon. Without a battle for ideological supremacy between Moscow and Washington, the technological race that ended with Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” may not have happened at all. Now, as a new cold war with China beds in, the cosmos is once again in play. But this time, it’s more about the money.
A month ago, Donald Trump signed an executive order that cleared the way for US companies to start mining in space without any internationally agreed treaty. This week, we got a glimpse of the administration’s plans to allow US drillers to mine asteroids and the moon.
Exploiting lunar resources and building a staging post to Mars are now a key part of America’s geopolitical strategy. The “barren” moon is really a commodity sweet shop – with significant deposits of gold, iron, magnesium and titanium.
Also buried below the surface are believed to be significant deposits of some of the most strategically important elements that are expected to underpin the economy of the future.
These include rare-earth metals (REMs), which are essential in technologies used in smartphones and batteries for electric vehicles, but also act as components in smart-weapons systems and medical imaging.
Currently, China has about 85pc of the global processing capacity of these REMs, with the nation supplying 80pc of imports to the US from 2014 to 2017. This provides a powerful lever for Beijing in any trade dispute.
Then there’s the quest for cheap, clean energy. “Unlike Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field, the moon has been bombarded with large quantities of Helium-3 by the solar wind,” the European Space Agency explains. “It is thought that this isotope could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive.”
One major feature of the current presidency is the administration’s contempt of multinational institutions. Trump is a dealmaker – believing that two representatives in a room can hammer out an agreement that suits them both but anything produced by a committee will result in an unsuitable compromise for all.
This preference for doing individual deals means the US has now developed something called the Artemis Accords, named after Nasa’s Artemis programme, which aim to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.
Details have now started leaking, and the accords make it clear that the administration will still oppose the 1979 Moon Treaty. This was a multilateral treaty that attempted to ensure all activities on celestial bodies would conform to international law.
America has never ratified it. Instead of negotiating the details with others, the US will discuss the accords separately with current space partners including Canada, Japan and European countries such as the UK.
The Trump administration is targeting countries with “like-minded” interests in mining the lunar surface. Russia will not be included. To deal with any disputes, Washington proposes “safety zones” around moon bases to prevent “interference or damage” from any rival. This sets the scene for a California-style gold rush.
Obviously, China is not going to sit idly by as American companies stake their claims. At the start of last year, China landed a robotic rover on the far side of the moon, the first such landing in history. China’s space programme is a force to be reckoned with and is geared to support “economic and social development”. Mining the moon is a central aim of the programme.
Just as China’s state-directed companies managed to outgun the US in their development of 5G, Beijing hopes to do the same in space.
Mining the moon will be a technical and engineering feat, but the potential returns are, as they say, astronomical.
The war for economic and ideological supremacy between China and the US will define the rest of this century. Without such rivalry, the quest to mine the moon would be much more pedestrian.
Now a clash of civilisations is turning it into a critical mission.
Garry White is chief investment commentator at wealth management company Charles Stanley