Late last year, NASA announced that it would be partnering with four private companies to collect what amounts to a few handfuls of soil from the moon. The contractors have to carry out their mission by 2024, at which point NASA may or may not pick up the samples and bring them back to Earth. What they will do with them is TBD.
Like a lot of space-related news, the headline is more exciting than the reality. Moondust sounds romantic, but I’m guessing it looks a lot like the crud that’s been accumulating behind my couch for the past six months. The amount of soil NASA’s asking for is a quantity that might have been caught in Buzz Aldrin’s shoe, if gravity had played a role. And the harvesting will be carried out by robots, not astronauts. Perhaps that’s why the companies were awarded for between $1 (that’s -one-) and $15,000 to do the job. A lunar gold rush, this is not. But for how long?
Back in September, after NASA announced its request for proposals, administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a press conference to explain the agency’s motives.
"Right now, we're trying to prove the concept that resources can be extracted, and they can be traded," said Bridenstine. "And not just traded among companies or private individuals, but also among countries and across borders — private individuals in other countries."
So it’s not about the dust, really. It’s about the principle of the thing: who gets to claim it, who gets to trade it, who gets to speculate on its future value, and so on and so forth. On earth, we have entire Bloomberg terminals accounting for this stuff in real time. But on the moon, we’re back to square one.
And that’s where it gets weird. The moon is not part of planet Earth. The moon is not encased (to borrow Quinn Slobodian’s term) by what we think of as state lines or national borders. The moon does not shine exclusively on the United States of America, as much as some Americans might think it does. And international treaties since the 1960s have stipulated that much like the high seas, no country can plant its flag on a celestial body and declare itself its sovereign.
The US isn’t going that far. But in practice, America (and a growing number of other countries) is doing something like it. And there’s a convincing argument that claiming property is practically more significant than declaring an abstract notion of extra-terrestrial sovereignty.
Political philosophers have been arguing about what justifies private property for centuries. John Locke believed that property was a natural right, and therefore not fundamentally contingent on the rules of any particular nation, empire or other jurisdiction. For Locke, “mixing” labor with resources justifies ownership: If I were to find an unclaimed piece of land, fence it in, and cultivate the soil to grow apples and pears, the land, the apples and the pears would rightly belong to me, so long as I wasn’t causing others some terrible privation*. The role of government, per the theory, is to recognize and uphold these natural rights.
It would follow, then, that anyone ingenuous enough to go to the moon and collect a handful of dirt more than deserves to own it—and that government must support their initiative. Whatever you think of Locke’s theory, it’s certainly more convincing (or at least less offensive) in a lunar context than in, say, a colonial one.**
The thing is, in our world (and pretty far outside it, apparently) the notion of a natural right preceding or not preceding government doesn’t really matter. Private ownership of all things depends less on some nice idea about laboriously cultivating fruits on unclaimed land than on an international system built on defining and protecting existing property rights.
At the risk of sounding tautological (and, you know, crudely oversimplifying all of capitalism): we own stuff because that stuff is recognized as ours by our government(s), and governments recognize each other because of their mutual recognition of our legitimate ownership of that stuff.
There are variations by jurisdiction, naturally. For example, it’s illegal in many countries to own endangered species: neither the state nor its courts will not defend your right to keep a panda in your basement, even if you found or caught or against all odds bred the panda yourself. Queen Elizabeth owns all the unmarked mute swans in England, and Brexit or no Brexit, you couldn’t buy one if you tried. You can’t even own a house in much of North Korea. But quirks aside, states recognizing other states’ laws over property is an essential basis for world trade.
NASA’s mandate is not world trade. It’s outer space, and increasingly, outer space trade. But by applying the (earthly) logic of private property to the moon and other planets, they are trying to create a market where there is none. (This example also shows how much private enterprise, even at the cutting edge of technology and human civilization, depends on incentives from governments—but that’s a different story!)
It’s not often that we get to observe the wheels of capitalism turning quite so transparently, with remarkably little euphemism or abstraction or spin. This is literally how markets get made. And while there is much to be wary of here, I still find Jim Bridenstine’s statement oddly poignant. It’s a reminder that our world is not inevitable, but rather, crafted one request for proposals, one piddling government contract, one official press release, one email newsletter at a time.
The low price of the moon dust belies the high stakes of the operation: over our lifetimes, we may watch its price climb higher and higher, before transmogrifying into some dizzying asset-backed security—a future of the future. But for now, it’s just dust, and it’s cheap, and somebody is going to go to space and put it in a box and bring it back to earth and remember, if only for a moment, that it is alien.
*can of worms, much?
**further out in space is another question, particularly if you believe, as I think I do, that we are not alone in the universe.