Donald Trump’s transition team asked NASA for details on its for-profit partnerships, and sought information about the potential to mine resources on the moon, according to a trove of internal documents obtained by Motherboard.
According to the documents, the questions from Trump’s Agency Review Team (ART) largely focused on the interests of commercial space companies and NASA’s potential help them turn profits.
Here’s the topline request on one document:
The ART has requested the following information:
Provide data and examples of how NASA does technology development (perhaps even in the form of products) when working with industry — for example, types of contracts/partnerships and IP [intellectual property] arrangements. The interest is in how the results of government-funded development get disseminated (or not).
In documents sent back to the ART, NASA repeatedly pointed out that its role is scientific, with the agency primarily focused on extending research and exploration into parts of space private industry can’t reach.
However, NASA’s responses also emphasised the ways the agency works to support industry, and mentioned projects it has developed with commercial partners.
“NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity while NASA leads its international and commercial partners in the human exploration of deep space,” the agency wrote.
The documents also included a slideshow with details about the potential for mining operations on the moon. One of the challenges of lunar mining, NASA pointed out, is that it’s difficult to locate deposits of useful minerals from space. A ground-based prospecting mission would likely be necessary.
NASA explained that the US, along with Taiwan, is developing a concept for a lunar “prospector” mission.
The prospector mission would focus on investigating resources on the moon that would be necessary for human habitation, including oxygen, hydrogen, and other valuable compounds.
There are a number of other resources on the moon, including rare earth metals, that could be of interest to commercial companies. But, as Motherboard points out, strip-mining the moon for profit could put the US at risk of violating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which forbids unilateral private use of space resources.
Whether Trump will actually push for mining on the moon remains to be seen, of course. But the arm of NASA that deals with human spaceflight is one of the few scientific sectors of the non-military government that isn’t facing major cuts in the White House’s budget proposal.
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