A New Space Race

Are we in a space race for cosmic resources? (Episode 6)

On the sixth episode of Our Future, Transformed, Hakeem Oluseyi, astrophysicist and research professor at Ƶ, speaks with Mason President Gregory Washington about how the race to exploit cosmic resources has geopolitical implications and why we had to start from scratch in our attempt to return to the Moon.

For billions of years, the sun has been depositing helium-3 in the lunar regolith. Maybe we could go to the Moon and mine the helium-3. And now we also know there’s water on the moon, right? So the key thing is our technology and our aspirations have come to a level where just as the United States has outposts around the world that make it easier to get where you want to go, The Moon could be that for Earth.”
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Transcript EP 6: Our Future, Transformed: A New Space Race

Gregory Washington (00:10)

The recent Artemis mission that saw a NASA capsule orbit the moon was a huge step in preparation for an eventual visit to our nearest neighbor. How they do it?

Hakeem Oluseyi (00:24)

All my career, from a graduate student on, I've been hearing over and over again how we could not redo Apollo, right? The technology and the knowledge are lost, but yet here we are doing it again, and we soon will see Americans on the surface of the moon again and, hopefully a permanent presence.

Gregory Washington (00:47)

I'm the kind of person that says, okay, we did that; we already went to the moon. Why go back?

Hakeem Oluseyi (00:55)

Well, because, you know, why climb Mount Everest? I think it's a mixture of several things.

Number one, there's the scientific research component, okay? But there's also the economic opportunity that comes from having bases off Earth so that we could potentially take advantage of the resources that exist in outer space, like comets. Our economy now depends heavily on electronics, which require these very rare metals, rare on the surface of Earth but not rare in the core of Earth, which we don't have access to. But luckily, when other planets were forming early in our solar system, they differentiated just like the Earth did and all the heavy stuff saying to the center, but then later, they collided with something. And so now we have chunks of core stuff flying around out there; we're calling it asteroids. And so there's one asteroid out there that is, you know, at a value of more than something like a quintillion dollars, right, that we could potentially mine. So there's a third reason, and this is one that people don't like to talk about, but I think that there are geopolitical implications.

Gregory Washington (02:07)

And that was going to be my next question.

Hakeem Oluseyi (02:09)


Gregory Washington (02:10)

Are we on the dawn of a new race, a new space race?

Hakeem Oluseyi (02:15)

I think we are. I think we're already there, in fact, right? You know, sub, excuse me, low Earth orbit, orbital parameter space is being grabbed. And you look at the same thing for the moon.

So the question I have is, you know, the analogy I make, is it going to be more like the North Pole or the South Pole? And here's what I mean. All of us nations that are competitors, we exist in harmony at the South Pole because there is no military or commercial advantage to be gained there that anyone sees. But you go to the North Pole, not if it has melted, those continental shelves have oil. So everybody's fighting over it.

Gregory Washington (02:52)


Hakeem Oluseyi (02:53)

So what is going to be the case with the moon? What is it going to be the case with orbit?

What is going to be the case with Mars? We don't know the answer yet, but the thing is, is that we know the problem could potentially occur. So there's two things you want to do.

You want to get your treaties done, right, to keep the peace, but also just in case you

want to go and grab what you can grab while the gettings good, right? And, you know, that's the reality. You know, we have not reinvented human beings. We have not reinvented nations.

We're still in a competitive world, right? We're still in a dangerous world. So, you know, it's like hope for the best, but plan for the worst is kind of the approach.

Gregory Washington (03:32)

What do we know about the moon now that we didn't know before?

Hakeem Oluseyi (03:36)

Yeah. So the moon, we learned so much more and more and more about the moon. You know, the big surprise when the Apollo astronauts went up there, and they got some moon rocks and brought them back to Earth, it was, oh my goodness, the moon is made of Earth, right? But then we started studying the moon more, and we learned, you know, it's very different than far aside from the near side. And then people started thinking about fusion, and they thought, oh, maybe helium-3 is a better fuel to add to the deuterium than tritium because it's less radioactive initially. You know, for billions of years, the sun has been depositing helium-3 in the lunar regolith. Maybe we could go to the moon and mine the helium-3. It's not clear that that is a solution, but, you know, and now we also know there's water on the moon, right? So the key thing is our technology and our aspirations have come to a level where, just as the United States has outposts around the world in places like Guam, that makes it easier to get where you want to go. The moon can be that for Earth, right? The orbit is one thing, and then having a solid base where the gravitational cost of getting off that body is far less, and if that body has its own fuel right there, then that can be very valuable for taking advantage of.

Gregory Washington (04:55)

Going to Mars.

Hakeem Oluseyi (04:56)

The outer solar system. Exactly. And, you know, I really think that even though we may never colonize Mars, some people think we may. I think space tourism is a real thing that may happen.

Gregory Washington (05:10)


Hakeem Oluseyi (05:11)


Gregory Washington (05:12)

So what new technologies, in your opinion, have to be developed in order to make this a reality?

Hakeem Oluseyi (05:18)

So they're already doing it, right? So it all depends. If you look, I think one of the key elements is fuel. So the big problem that Artemis had is that it still uses liquid hydrogen as the fuel. Liquid hydrogen, think about that, okay? It has to be like negative 450 degrees Fahrenheit. It's so low density. So keeping it inside of a hose is very difficult. Think about it like this. If you look at the difference in density between lead and water, the difference in density between water and liquid hydrogen is even greater.

Gregory Washington (05:49)

Then lead?

Hakeem Oluseyi (05:50)

Then lead, comparing lead and water.

Gregory Washington (05:52)


Hakeem Oluseyi (05:53)

Yeah. So that stuff is very, very difficult to work with, right?

Gregory Washington (05:57)

What's next for the Artemis program? This is a phase deal, right?

Hakeem Oluseyi (06:00)


Gregory Washington (06:01)

So what happens next?

Hakeem Oluseyi (06:02)

What we did is we sent a craft without humans, and there were a lot of sensors on board. And the thing that we're doing now, which, you know, why didn't we think of this before. The space environment and radiation affect female bodies differently than it affects male bodies. So they put mannequins on there with sensors to figure out how the radiation environment is going to affect females. But then, now, we're going to do the same thing with real humans next. And so I love the way that NASA says when the next step is going to happen. They say, not before 2024, not, you know, on this date in 2024, but not before a particular date. But after we do that, then we're going to put, just like we have an international space station orbiting Earth, we're going to have an orbiting space station orbiting the Moon. And then we're going to actually send humans to land on the surface of the Moon and start taking care of business. We'll build a new Moon base on the surface, and then after that, it can now serve as a staging area to go beyond.

Gregory Washington (07:00)

We have a number of our students in the audience. I'd like to open it up for questions. So, any questions you have would be greatly appreciated.

Student1 (07:11)

So how do you just forget how to go to the Moon? That's what I'm kind of confused about.

Hakeem Oluseyi (07:17)

Yeah, that was a long time ago. And you know, when you are, when you have a factory that builds things, you know, it's outfitted to do that. And when you no longer have that purpose, you repurpose that factory. You tear everything down. And also, if you think about it, in my lifetime, how did we store digital data? It started off with those big, big floppies, and it went to a smaller floppy, then a smaller floppy, then I had Jazz Drive and all these other things. I can't use that now. I used to have an old box of VHS tapes. What am I going to play that in? I'm a member of the Screen Actors Guild, all right? So now it's time to vote for Oscar winners. They send me DVDs. How am I going to watch those movies? Right? So, you know, things just get out of date. So keep that in mind as you develop new knowledge. How do you keep it? How do you preserve it? And how do you pass it on to the next generation?

Gregory Washington (08:12)

Well, we know our future is intact, and we know we have another place that we will all visit someday soon.

Hakeem Oluseyi (07:21)


Gregory Washington (07:22)

So I want to thank you.

Hakeem Oluseyi (07:24)

Thank you.

Gregory Washington (07:25)

Thank you for spending time with us. And I want to thank all of you for the next episode of Mason, our future transformed.

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About the Series

Mason President Gregory Washington hosts a YouTube seriestitled“Our Future, Transformed: Mason Spotlights the World’s Grand Challenges.”The series features faculty experts speaking about some of the most debated and significant topics of our day with an audience ofstudents. Experts in the first season discuss the key solutions to key issues, including water policies in the West, police reform, problems at our Southern border, clean energy, and getting more women into STEM fields.

Guest Bio

Hakeem Oluseyi served as the visiting Robinson Professor at Ƶ from 2021-2023, and he is the president of the National Society of Black Physicists. He’s also the author ofA Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars.


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