The new space race is fast beginning to resemble a gold rush, according to Wall Street analysts eager to exploit minerals in outer space.
According to a new note issued by Morgan Stanley, the moon is expected to be one among many extraterrestrial sources of riches in the coming years – and a potential field of contention in the struggle for resources among major terrestrial powers such as the United States, China and Russia. In the note, analysts describe the moon as a critical node for future space travel endeavors and a critical source of minerals and water:
“The moon is seen as an important weigh station for the preparation and launch of deeper space missions,” analysts noted. “Water on the moon can be used to sustain life and create fuel.”
Continued speculation over the potentially massive profits to be found on the moon and other celestial objects are sure to fuel the ongoing militarization of space and its transformation into what U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has called a “war-fighting domain.” Indeed, the conquest and use of space for military purposes has been a trend the U.S. has pursued since the dawn of its space program – the Pentagon’s U.S. Space Command already operates under the motto “Masters of Space”– and this has only gained momentum in recent years, especially as President Donald Trump seeks to establish a Space Force as a new department of the U.S. military by the end of his administration.
Morgan Stanley’s analysts are keenly aware of the unfolding competition, noting that “the moon has long been viewed as the ‘ultimate high ground’ in a military sense.” The financial giant isn’t alone in viewing China’s landing of lunar rover Chang’e 4 on the dark side of the moon as a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S. that is sure to stoke a new space race and potentially new military wrangling between major world powers.
The landing “lifted the mysterious veil” from the far side of the moon and kicked off the start of “a new chapter in the human race’s lunar and space exploration,” according to China National Space Administration officials. And while the landing was described as a “step forward for human civilization” by Communist Party-run newspaper The Global Times and even earned the congratulations of NASA, the achievement is seen by most officials in Washington as more of a shot across the bow than as a lofty step toward exploring the final frontier for the benefit of humankind.
Just last August, Pentagon analysts warned that China’s new space program is a part of the country’s plans to make space “central to modern warfare.”
In October, Jeff Gossel, senior intelligence engineer at the Space and Missile Analysis Group of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, argued that the Chinese government’s goal of building a moon base could allow the country to vastly increase its anti-satellite capabilities.
The Pentagon’s obsession with outer space’s role in military competitions between earthly powers has a long history in U.S. security circles, dating back to 1958, when then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson described the need to secure U.S. control of space:
“[T]here is something more important than the ultimate weapon. That is the ultimate position – the position of total control over the Earth that lies somewhere out in space. That is … the distant future, though not so distant as we may have thought. Whoever gains that position gains control, total control, over Earth, for the purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom.”
Yet investors are hoping to earn massive dividends from investments in space exploration, with the space economy is expected to swell to $1.1 trillion by 2040, according to Morgan Stanley’s earlier note – almost triple the current amount of $385 billion, according to the Space Foundation. The commercial sector is expected to gain the most from this massive swelling in the interplanetary economy as NASA’s role diminishes while the ambitions of private players, including billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, increasingly take center stage in space exploration efforts.
Morgan Stanley’s analysts hope that such market competition between private actors as well as national entities will boost the capabilities of the space economy, noting:
“We believe more conspicuous lunar missions may highlight competing national security interests and accelerate the development of important adjacent technologies in AI, software,and cyber. The competitive dynamic may accelerate the development of the space economy in general.”
Yet critics have warned that the increasing role of space as a field of market competition – and by implication, military competition – will instead exacerbate the problems humans already face on a planet rife with war, inequality, social strife and ecological ruin.
In their 2007 book, Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe, Professors Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod warn of the dangers in extending the property rights of transnational corporations and the military operations of imperialist powers to the cosmos:
“It has long been recognized that struggles over space on Earth are intimately connected to social struggles, to contests between classes and others. … Sadly now, those interests monopolizing and controlling the use of outer space are those attempting to monopolize and control social relations, social processes, and forms of subjectivity on Earth. It is possible to imagine the total militarization of the public sphere from space, civilians’ every move being watched and targeted.
In short, the current way of humanizing outer space is again about exerting the hegemony of the powerful.”