This week’s launch of the Artemis 1 rocket fired up the old question about the “why” of Space exploration. The answer to this, is $.

Lyrical waxing about “destiny” and humanity’s insatiable desire to see “over the next hill” applies. You can even throw in a bit of Byron – “Ye stars! Which are the poetry of heaven!” But the bottom line is the dollar. There’s gold in them-there Moon mountains. Well, helium 3 and possibly cobalt and nickel, but that’s pretty much the same thing.

The rationale for the Cold War race to the Moon was different. Moscow had to prove that Soviet communism was technologically superior to Washington’s democratic capitalism, and vice versa. There was a war of ideology to be won. There are echoes of this in today’s rivalry between the US and China in Space, but it is far from the driving force.

This time the Moon, and Space in general, is seen as an arena for making rapid advancement in all sorts of technologies and gaining access to lucrative natural resources. There’s a military aspect to all of this with a Space arms race already happening and several examples of the role Space has in modern warfare. This became clear in the first Gulf War (1991) and has become more important each passing year.

The Americans intend to maintain their lead, dominate the sector, and use this to write the rules for Space in the modern age. The vehicle to achieve this is the Artemis Accords – a legal framework for exploring the Moon and accessing its resources.

Joining the Accords requires signing a bilateral agreement with the US and so far, 22 countries are involved, including France, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, the UK, Japan, and Israel. Many of the stipulations in the document are in the spirit of the Moon being the domain of all humankind. They call for transparency, interoperability, and pledge that Space be only used for peaceful purposes.

However, all the signatories have agreed there will be “safety zones” on the Moon related to the areas in which certain countries are working. This is problematic because it suggests nations can claim parts of our natural satellite – an idea explicitly rejected by Article II of the Outer Space Treaty (1967) which states that “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” .

But the Treaty has limited weight given that it has only been ratified by about half of the world’s nation states and does not begin to cover technological advancements made in the past 50 years. It is also difficult to enforce. The US argues that the Accords do not contravene the Treaty and that safety zones are required to ensure one country’s lunar programme is not affected by another’s, and that the zones will help deconfliction measures.

Nevertheless, the Chinese and Russians view the Accords as a lunar land grab. Neither were invited to join – the Russians due to deteriorating relations over a number of years, and the Chinese because of the Wolf Amendment passed by Congress in 2011 which bans scientific cooperation between NASA and China. This has encouraged China and Russian plans for a joint space station orbiting the Moon and a base on the surface. They are probably ahead of the Artemis countries on the space station, but several years behind on landing humans on the Moon and building a base which is an ambition the Artemis programme has for 2032 (so maybe 2036…)

The development of factions in Space mirrors that on Earth. Chinese and American-led groupings will dominate the future and force latecomers into choosing who to work with.

The Artemis countries have made their choice and are now watching as the Orion spacecraft, launched by NASA’s new Space Launch System, nears the Moon. It should arrive sometime on Monday, then go into lunar orbit, and return to Earth on 11 December. Before risking human life NASA needs to demonstrate everything works – the launch system, propulsion, navigation, communication, and how well Orion’s heatshield holds up on re-entry as it plunges back through the atmosphere at almost 40,000 km/h.

Depending on results, an Artemis II crewed mission is scheduled for 2024. This will take four astronauts on a flight in which they’ll travel 7,200 kilometres beyond the far side of the Moon. which is the farthest humans have ever travelled into the solar system, then it will go into orbit and before returning home. This will test Orion’s life support systems and ability to communicate with NASA so far out.  

Then – Artemis III. In 2025 astronauts will land at the lunar south pole where experts believe most of the Moon’s water is and set up a rudimentary base camp. After this an Artemis launch is envisaged every year and will include astronauts from non-American nations.

The cost? About $40bn so far, probably $100bn by 2025, but the Apollo missions cost $28bn – the equivalent of almost $280bn in today’s currency. The Space economy is currently a $400bn industry and on its way to $1trn within a decade. Solar energy, radiation-free nuclear fusion power, rare earth metals – they are all for grabs in this high-tech high-risk arena.  It will be first come first served. The Americans intend to be first. Again.

Tim Marshall is currently writing a book on the astropolitics of space. “The Future of Geography” is scheduled for publication in April 2023.

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