No one has been on the moon since 1972. The last human-made object to soft land on the lunar surface was a Soviet built rover in the mid-1970s. U.S. President Barack Obama has specifically ruled out the moon as a destination for Americans.
All of that has not daunted Moon Express Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that intends to send rovers to prospect for metals and rare Earth minerals on the lunar surface. Moon Express has already gotten a $10 million NASA data purchase contract. In addition, the company is an entrant in the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize. The Lunar X-Prize would dole out money to the first private group that lands an instrument package on the lunar surface, have it explore within a third of a mile of the landing site and return high definition images and video.
While Moon Express is somewhat vague about what it would do with lunar resources once they are found, the company and its founders cannot be faulted for not dreaming big, Mining the Moon, to support a settlement and to support further exploration throughout the solar system, as well as to benefit Earth has been a dream held by space enthusiasts for decades. Moon Express constitutes an attempt to translate this dream into reality.
One of the impediments to large scale mining of the moon's resources is the high cost of returning them to Earth. If practical fusion energy were to become a reality, helium 3, a substance that does not occur naturally on Earth, might be worth it at current transportation costs. But even rare earths may not achieve a cost/benefit ratio that would make mining it on the Moon profitable.
Another impediment is the lack of law governing property rights on other celestial bodies such as the moon. There is nothing in international law that forbids a private company from extracting resources from the moon. But the law is silent, so far, on rights to hold property, including land and mineral rights, on the moon. There is no mechanism to resolve disputes between private companies, such as overmining claims.
For large-scale lunar mining to take place, these questions need to be resolved by international agreement. It would also be useful to have a human presence on the moon, in the form of a lunar settlement, to be a core market for lunar mining entrepreneurs. If that settlement is to be American, a change of policy and likely a change of administration would be required.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times and The Weekly Standard.