Though the news is filled with stories of riots and a pandemic, the most transformative things going on at present are in a totally different sphere. One of those things is pretty obvious, the other less so.
The obvious transformation involves SpaceX’s successful launch of a human crew into orbit, the first such launch involving an American spacecraft in nearly a decade, and the first such launch ever by a commercial spacecraft.
This is huge, but in a sense, nothing new: We were launching people into orbit over 50 years ago, after all. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is bigger and fancier than a Gemini, but the mission profile is not all that different. And of course, our last mission to orbit, on board a space shuttle, was basically old hat itself.
SpaceX births new era
But SpaceX is doing it for much less, and that’s revolutionary. To get a kilogram into orbit on the space shuttle costs $54,500. To do the same thing with SpaceX’s newest rocket, the Falcon 9, costs $2,720. That’s basically a twenty-fold reduction in cost.
Lots of things that are too expensive to do at $54,500 become doable at $2,720. And SpaceX isn’t standing still. Its Starship reusable rocket, under development now, is to cost a mere $2 million per launch, and Elon Musk says its cost per kilogram to orbit will be at least 10 times lower than the Falcon 9. There are a lot more things that become doable at $272 per kilogram. At those prices, things like space tourism, space hotels, lunar mines and asteroid mining become feasible.
As Robert Heinlein once said, once you get to Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system.
Which brings me to the second, less obvious transformation of this spring: President Donald Trump’s opening outer space for business. "The executive order, “Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources,” is meant to create a new industry: the extraction and processing of resources from the moon and asteroids toward the settlement of the solar system," as I wrote in April.
There’s a lot of wealth in space as I wrote back in 2013, "A 79-foot-wide M-type (metallic) asteroid could hold 33,000 tons of extractable metals, including $50 million in platinum alone. A 23-foot-diameter C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid can hold 24,000 gallons of water, useful for generating fuel and oxygen. Larger asteroids could be worth as much as the GDP of a superpower. Asteroid 1986 DA is a metallic asteroid made up of iron, nickel, gold and platinum. Estimates of its value range between $6 and $7 trillion. Something that size won't be retrieved anytime soon, but the figure gives some idea of just how much wealth is out there."
Space for business
People have been talking about asteroid mining for awhile and even started companies with that in mind, but they’ve been slowed down by two problems: The expense of getting into outer space, and the legal uncertainties around extracting lunar and asteroid resources. Musk is addressing the expense; Trump is addressing the legal uncertainty.
The executive order makes clear that America rejects the failed 1979 Moon Treaty — which the United States never joined, and which banned private property rights in space — and that it will recognize and defend the rights of its citizens in developing space resources.
In doing so, it’s pretty bipartisan: In 2015, President Barck Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which provides that “a U.S. citizen engaged in the commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource ... shall be entitled to ... possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”
Trump’s order ensures that international obligations will be supportive and not destructive of such efforts.
Rather than the Moon Treaty, the administration is working on a new set of agreements with other spacefaring nations, known as the Artemis Accords, in which participants will agree to respect each others’ rights in outer space. There’s already interest from other nations, though the Russians, whose space-launch business has collapsed in the face of competition from SpaceX, aren’t happy.
At any rate, it may well be that future historians will remember 2020 much more for being the second beginning of a wave of human expansion into space, than for the grubby earthbound problems that occupy the news on a daily basis. I certainly hope so.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The United States returns to space exploration with SpaceX