Fifty years ago this July, Apollo 11 delivered the first crewed mission to the surface of the moon. Today, the United States is on the verge of a space renaissance—returning astronauts to the moon, first on an orbiting space station and then a return to the surface. Among other objectives, NASA, its international partners and commercial companies are looking to find and mine lunar water­—the basic building block of hydrogen fuel and oxygen.

Water, or ice, located on a celestial body like the moon or an asteroid, is a type of space resource. In the last 20 years, deep space exploration has identified potential water deposits on the moon, on Mars, in the asteroid belt and even on moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Using in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology, such deposits could be converted to hydrogen or oxygen, enabling the refueling and supply of future space missions. In the long term, these space resources can also reduce the cost of uncrewed exploration missions to deep-space locations such as the asteroid belt, the giant planets and the Kuiper Belt.

Commercial interests are also interested in mining space resources. If water can provide (relatively) cheap refueling services in space, it could catalyze the growth of the commercial space industry. As an example, there is already interest in asteroid mining, in search of platinum or other valuable metals. The global space industry is estimated to be worth more than $400 billion in 2018. By 2030, the industry could double in size because of new technologies and commercial innovation, including space resources. The U.S. is well-situated to capture a significant share of that growth, but that is far from assured. A further focus on scientific research is needed.

Recently, the bipartisan “Space Resources Institute Act” was introduced in both chambers of Congress (H.R. 1029 and S. 391). This proposal, which could further unlock space resource technologies, comes from four members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation: Representative Tipton, Representative Perlmutter, Senator Gardner and Senator Bennet. Based on the objective of “maintaining United States preeminence in space,” the act would direct NASA to investigate the feasibility and need to establish a physical or virtual Space Resources Institute within six months. Specific objectives include:

  • Identifying, developing and distributing space resources, including by encouraging the development of foundational science and technology.
  • Reducing the technological risks associated with identifying, developing and distributing space resources.
  • Developing options for using space resources to support current and future space architectures, programs and missions; and enable such architectures, programs and missions that would not otherwise be possible

But it is not only the U.S. that is looking at leading in space. On the resources side, Luxembourg, Brussels and the United Arab Emirates are laying the groundwork for their own aspirations.

One important tool for the future institute would be NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a deep-space station orbiting the moon. In early 2019, Canada became the first country to officially join the U.S.-led project.  NASA’s other partners on the International Space Station, including the European Space Agency, JAXA and Roscosmos, have all expressed interest in joining the project.

The Gateway would serve as a base for lunar science, supporting crewed and uncrewed lunar exploration by both government and commercial partners. It would also provide a unique laboratory to study human health and other subjects in the harsh environment of deep space, building upon the International Space Station’s success in Earth orbit.

A key development underlying renewed U.S. space competitiveness is the role of private sector actors and commercial innovation. In 2011, the U.S. only had a fraction of the global commercial space launch market. Following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. lost its human flight launch capability. In response, NASA contracts and support have developed commercial launch capabilities.

By 2017, U.S. companies supplied almost two thirds of all commercial launches globally. In the next year, both SpaceX and Boeing are scheduled to send astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time. More recently, private transportation options have been considered for upcoming lunar missions.

In 2015, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which provided greater legal certainty for property rights for U.S. commercial companies extracting space resources. In late 2018, a consortium of NASA, academic and private-sector stakeholders published the Commercial Lunar Propellant Architecture.  The study established the technological and economic feasibility of extracting water on the moon and turning it into fuel. In the near term, the study found that lunar resource-based refueling could generate more than $2 billion in revenue annually. In March 2019, NASA announced that it was unsealing lunar rock samples from the original Apollo missions that had been stored to specifically enable more advanced analysis later.   

NASA’s existing research institutes are central to achieving the agency’s goals in basic and applied sciences related to space exploration. In total, NASA hosts or funds activities at more than 60 institutes across the country. These institutes vary in structure and include federal entities, universities, private contractors and cross-sector collaborations.

The specialties and scientific missions of each institute vary; notable research capabilities include key fields like exoplanets, astrobiology, advanced manufacturing, and biomedical research. Recently, NASA began funding Space Technology Research Institutes, university-led research initiatives to develop specialized technologies for deep space exploration.  The first two, focused on biological engineering and ultrastrong composite materials, can both enhance space capabilities and develop new technologies for use on Earth.

A Space Resources Institute would perform a similar role, although it would focus on a specific mission need, as opposed to a specific applied science. Space resources are inherently interdisciplinary. Multiple new systems are need to incorporate technologies from across the space industry to successfully develop water or mineral resources in space. Space resources missions have advanced engineering requirements to address vacuum, microgravity, extreme temperatures swings, radiation and other hazards in deep space. Other relevant challenges include resource surveys and characterization, space resource economics, and processing and manufacturing technologies.

To conduct a Mars mission in the 2030s relying on refueling from ISRU technologies, NASA needs to encourage their innovation and adoption soon. An institute would act as a bridge between NASA and the growing commercial space sector. As demonstrated by launch providers such as United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origins, Virgin Galactic and others, commercial companies can drive technological development and reduce costs.

Private-sector research, development and demonstration (RD&D) improves capabilities for scientific missions. When it comes to the technologies to prospect, extract and process space resources, public-private collaboration will encourage a virtuous feedback cycle.

A Space Resources Institute could also prove critical to national economic competitiveness. When the U.S. first went to the moon, only the U.S. and former Soviet Union had the capability to launch lunar missions. Today, many spacefaring countries have launched or plan to launch such missions. Notably, Israel’s ongoing lunar Beresheet lander mission was launched on a SpaceX rocket from Florida.