On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to take steps on the surface of the moon. Apollo 11 became the first lunar landing mission consisting of the Saturn V SA-506 rocket. The mission launched on July 16, 1969, from the Kennedy Space Centre. The launch was undoubtedly a new frontier for all humankind and signalled a new era in the realm of human spaceflight and extra-planetary exploration.
Over 50 years later and moon-faring interests have been renewed amongst both public and private stakeholders investing in near-term development and settlement on the lunar surface. While this development inspires awe, it also dredges recollections of a tumultuous history surrounding this extra-terrestrial entity. The first humans sent to the moon were a culmination of a competitive space race, and history has repeatedly shown that where new territories and conquests are concerned, often great injustice and exclusion occurs. Without adequate institutional oversight, history is set to repeat itself. The global space sector seems oriented towards lunar exploration under the guise of global beneficiation of which Africa may be left behind.
Over the past few years, the African space industry has grown remarkably, especially as regards the satellite industry, which currently forms the largest market share of the USD7 billion space economy. Despite this, there are some outer space activities that Africa as a region is yet to explore. Only a few countries have active astronomy programmes, have expressed an interest in engaging in future human spaceflight missions, and even fewer have expressed interest in exploring the moon.
The prospects of going to the moon are indeed worth the hype. The moon presents many exciting engineering possibilities; for instance, testing technologies, flight capabilities, life support systems and exploration techniques for future missions. The lunar surface is also fertile ground for a host of various precious minerals and elements to be used both on Earth and on the moon, in a process commonly referred to as In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU). Asteroids, the moon, and other extra-planetary bodies present an immense opportunity for resource development in platinum group metals (iron, platinum etc.), rare earth elements (potassium, phosphorous) and water and ice, which is essential for manufacturing rocket propellants.
What makes Africa significant in this development is the extent to which future mining methods on the moon are reminiscent of those in situ resource utilisation techniques already employed on the continent. Africa is the mining capital of the world; it has the largest minerals industry. By all intents and purposes, any future extractive industry in outer space should rightly be steered by the successes and relative failures of the African mining industry. Africa is indeed at an advantage in terms of industry experience, with large infrastructural, regulatory and institutional systems that will prove beneficial in lunar mining activities.
Exploration and resource utilisation on the lunar surface stands to be a lucrative extension of outer space activities. However, in exercising the freedom to use and explore outer space, Africa will still require its efforts to meet international muster. More African countries need to sign and ratify the Outer Space Treaty, Rescue Agreement, Moon Agreement, Liability Convention and Registration Convention. Also, certain treaties have been drafted and are positioned to address the new challenges that are likely to result from humankind’s return to the moon. These include:
- The Hague Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resource Activities;
- The Moon Village Principles on Best Practices for Sustainable Lunar Practices;
- NASA’s Artemis Accords, and;
- UNCOPUOS General Exchange of Views on Potential Legal Models for Activities in Exploration, Exploitation, and Utilisation of Space Resources.
These regulatory instruments are necessary for attempting to address issues likely to arise concerning resource extraction, planetary protection, lunar dust and safety zones. These legal documents indicate a desire to benefit from space activities in a manner that is peaceful, coordinated and sustainable. Treaties such as the Moon Agreement ensure that African states align themselves with visions of the moon that consider its significance as our planet’s immediate heavenly connection, deserving of respect and territorial integrity.
Accordingly, Africa should set its eyes on receiving its equal beneficiation of any future gains obtained from going to the moon. As it currently stands, the African Space Strategy and Policy does not expressly make mention of any intention to exploit lunar resources. However, this is a policy point that will represent a vital component of any future space programme agenda in the coming years and is worth inclusion in forthcoming policy reviews. This will be a progressive step in space commercialisation, not only for the region, but each independent, and space-faring African nation, to fully realise its potential in this diverse and multi-resourceful sector.