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NASA Is Desperately Trying to Mine the Moon Before China Gets There

an american flag on the surface on the moon
NASA Is Trying to Mine the Moon Before ChinaCaspar Benson - Getty Images
  • A new space race is warming up between U.S. and China as each nation clambers to return to the Moon.

  • A new NASA solicitation reinforces its interest in mining the Moon following previous comments from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson about the U.S.’s need to get there first.

  • NASA hopes to recruit university researchers to investigate ways to use metals mined from the moon's surface layer.

Nothing puts boots on the Moon quite like a good, old-fashioned space race. After all, it was the decade-long process of technological one-upmanship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that made the Apollo program possible. Now, with China busily planning a number of new missions to the lunar surface, NASA is putting its own plans in place to make sure it get first dibs on all the precious moon metals that are ready to be mined.

According to Bloomberg, NASA is searching for researchers to discover ways to use moon metals gathered from the lunar surface for 3D printing and other applications. This follows various announcements in 2022 of university partnerships and research programs aimed at designing and leveraging a metal-making pipeline on the moon.

“There are certain metals we might be able to extract in different parts of the moon and we might need to start manufacturing with them if we are going to build things on the moon,” said NASA’s Matt Deans told Bloomberg. “The solicitation does spell out we want to construct things eventually.”

This doubling down on beating China back to the Moon comes only a couple of months after NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, following the completion of a successful Artemis 1 mission that flew around the Moon and back, said, “we better watch out that [China doesn’t] get to a place on the Moon under the guise of scientific research.” He then followed that warning with a description of what could happen next, using China’s aggressive territorial strategy in the South China Sea as an example.

However, one big difference between now and the Space Race of the 1960s is that NASA isn’t going it alone. Private companies are also investigating ways to set up shop on the Moon. The most prominent of these companies, the Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin, revealed a solar cell created with imitation moon dirt (known as regolith) earlier this month.

These efforts to start leveraging metals and other materials on the moon to power future lunar operations is crucial, as these technologies could make any long-term settlement more affordable both to construct and maintain. In fact, Blue Origin says that its solar cells “can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.”

A full-blow metals extraction and refinery system is still a ways down the line, as the future air-breathing astronauts who would run it would probably need things like water and oxygen—things that will require extensive lunar infrastructure to extract.

With U.S.-China relations at an all-time low and with China (and also Russia, obviously) disinterested in signing on to the Artemis Accords—a Moon-governing agreement grounded in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—any chance of space-based cooperation between the two superpowers seems extremely unlikely, if not impossible.

In other words, what’s old is new again.

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