How Not To Enter the Space Age

This is way off topic, but it interests us, and there’s nothing else going on at the moment. So let’s talk about the wealth of the solar system. We assume that a great deal has been written on this subject, but we suspect that virtually all of it is worthless. Let’s look at something we found at PhysOrg: Who owns the moon? It says, with our bold font:

[B]ig corporations, rich entrepreneurs and even US politicians are eyeing up the moon and its untapped resources. Russia has plans for a manned colony by 2030 and a Japanese firm wants to build a ring of solar panels around the moon and beam energy back to Earth.

We need to be clear about the legal validity of extraterrestrial real estate as the same ideas that were once used to justify colonialism are being deployed by governments and galactic entrepreneurs. Without proper regulation, the moon risks becoming an extra-planetary Wild West.

What we think they’re trying to say — or what needs to be said — is that without a clearly defined and dependable system of property rights, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to justify the immense investment required to develop the potential of resources on other worlds and their moons. What company is going to invest the billions that will be necessary to search for, obtain, and bring to Earth the much-needed commodities that may be found out there if some crazed outfit — with ships and weapons — doesn’t recognize their rights?

Who will bring law and order to the solar system? Some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless committee of the United Nations? Some treaty signed by nations who may not even be involved in such activities? The European Parliament? The World Bank? A bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels? Back to PhysOrg:

To figure out whether “earthly” laws can help decide who owns what in space – or if anything can be owned at all – we must first disentangle sovereignty from property. Back in the 17th century, natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius and John Locke argued that property rights exist by virtue of human nature but that they can only have legal force when they are recognised by a sovereign government. Within the context of space law, the big question is whether sovereignty reaches infinity – how high must you go to escape your country?

Goofy questions. If it were your decision as head of some big mining company, would you launch a ridiculously expensive mission based on some law your government passed, or some international treaty? What if there’s a bandit country whose ships visit your mining operation on one of Jupiter’s moons and they take over everything you’ve been working on? You can’t call the cops. Whatcha gonna do? Call the insurance company? Ooops — because no one is allowed to own any property out there, your investment is uninsurable. Let’s read on:

When the US was confronted with this query in the early 1950s, it lobbied for the recognition of outer space as a global commons.

[…]

This principle can be found back in Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which clearly forbids “national appropriation by claims of sovereignty, means of use or occupation by any other means”. It has been widely accepted: no one complains the various moon landings or satellites in space have infringed their sovereignty.

Isn’t that sweet? “Global commons” means that no one owns anything. It means no private company will ever develop the resources that are out there. Government clerks might talk about it, but no one in his right mind thinks they could ever accomplish anything. PhysOrg continues:

Historical records of the Space Treaty negotiations clearly indicate people were against private appropriations at the time, but an explicit prohibition never made it into Article II. Lessons have been learned from this omission and the ban [against private property] was far more explicit in the subsequent Moon Agreement of 1979. However only 16 countries signed the agreement, none of which were involved in manned space exploration, leaving it somewhat meaningless as an international standard.

Ignoring all the dreamy nonsense, and looking at things from the viewpoint of a potential investor in what could be a fantastic enterprise, the Moon Agreement sounds like the babbling of a pack of clowns. Here’s more:

So while the idea of buying some lunar real estate might be fun, in order for these plots to be recognised as property there needs to be legal recognition by a superior authority such as a nation state. As states are not allowed to claim sovereign rights in outer space, landed property on the moon and planets will in all likelihood be outlawed.

Legal commentators are hopeful that states will remain loyal to the treaty and refrain from recognising or endorsing a private property claim. If there is a precedent, it lies at the bottom of the ocean. In 1974, the US government refused to recognise the exclusive mining rights of Deepsea Ventures to the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

This is all nonsense. If the wealth that is probably out there is going to be discovered, mined, and brought to Earth where it’s needed and will benefit everyone, all of those “experts” need to get out of the way.

There’s a lot more in the PhysOrg article, but very little of it makes any sense to us. In our humble opinion, if anything of value is going to happen out there, the people who are capable of doing it have to take the initiative. Space entrepreneurs will have to agree among themselves to recognize and defend each other’s claims. It’s absurd to depend on politicians and diplomats back home. A government committee can’t even operate a fast-food franchise. Letting them make rules for the development of the solar system is insane — in our humble opinion, of course.

See also: Property Rights in Outer Space, Revisited.

See also: Where No One Has Gone Before.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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17 responses to “How Not To Enter the Space Age

  1. Ceteris Paribus

    PhysOrg says:

    Without proper regulation, the moon risks becoming an extra-planetary Wild West.

    Geez. Sounds like this is going to result in some pretty rancorous arguments among the lunar stake holders. Calls to mind a common saying among university faculty regarding their fierce discussions with other faculty members: “The arguments are so intense because what is at stake is so low.”

    Consider that the International Space Station has been spinning around a mere couple hundred miles above the earth for the last 14 years, providing nothing more useful to humanity than just the occasional update that a new group of astronauts have been dispatched to re-arrange the space station furniture again. The chances of anything of commercial value being retrieved from a moon that is a quarter million miles away are vanishingly low.

  2. Charles Deetz ;)

    Seems that some creationists would claim it for god. He made it, it is his to divvy up. Maybe he’ll make a new Adam and Eve to populate it.

  3. Ceteris Paribus: “The chances of anything of commercial value being retrieved from a moon that is a quarter million miles away are vanishingly low.”

    In our lifetime, certainly. However, there is one factor affecting the value of anything on the moon that is extremely important — it’s already off the surface of the earth. We don’t need to pay the exorbitantly high energy cost to lift it into space because it’s already there. Thus, the moon may one day serve as the source of materials for further space travel.

    It’s also possible that at some time in the future we may deplete earthly sources of certain rare elements or minerals to the point that it’s more economical to get them from the moon.

    And then, there’s always the possibility that we may develop a massive appetite for green cheese…

  4. Before worrying about who owns the rights to whatever resources might exist on the Moon which is uninhabitable and currently inaccessible, we should be more concerned about how possible resources in Antartica will be handled.

  5. …we should be more concerned about how possible resources in Antartica will be handled.”

    Those assets are frozen.

  6. This is very much a serious problem. As we envision going to Mars, so do other countries. Claiming territory on other celestial bodies will be no different than when the “new world” was discovered by the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the British, etc. War was the result. It will be a long, long time before we reach, if ever, commonality and sharing among nations in this regards.

  7. I just added a brief mention of the fact that without recognized property rights, you couldn’t buy insurance for your off-planet mining investment.

  8. “What we think they’re trying to say”
    I think they’re trying to say that without regulation it’s going to be a competition of all against all. There is one big difference with the Wild West and the colonization of Africa and parts of Asia though: the Moon is uninhabited. In the 19th Century I would have preferred strong regulation to protect the rights of the indegenous people. That doesn’t apply here.
    The only danger is a war that’s transferred to Earth. If everyone agrees that that has to be avoided and can agree on arbitration by for instance the UN I don’t see any objection to a free for all.

    “Some bloated, corrupt, and utterly worthless committee of the United Nations?”
    Ah, your silly right wing prejudices kick up a row once again. The Security Council is the first candidate. You can forget Adam Smith’ Invisible Hand here. It didn’t pull off voyages of discovery and colonization either. They were financed by governments. The most successfull examples, Dutch VOC and English EIC, were closely connected to the governments. A modern example is provided by nuclear power plants. A few years ago Dutch government decided to let a third one be financed by private enterprises. It totally failed. And of course the race of the Moon in the 60’s was a governmental business.

    “Government clerks might talk about it, but no one in his right mind thinks they could ever accomplish anything. ”
    BWAHAHAHAHA!
    Yeah, both Columbus’ journeys across the Atlantic and Armstrong’s journey to the Moon were hoaxes, because no way “governmental clerks could ever accomplish things like that”. And curiosity is not driving around on Mars.

    “Space entrepreneurs will have to agree among themselves to recognize”
    Dream your sweet dreams on about the Invisible Hand, my dear SC, who dismisses historical facts regarding governmental enterprises like Ol’ Hambo dismisses historical facts regarding the age of the Universe. At the time you’re done dreaming the governments of the USA, China and a few other countries will have claimed huge parts of the Moon in the same way they are claiming the Arctic.
    Like CP writes above you have still plenty of time for dreaming.

    “without recognized property rights, you couldn’t buy insurance for your off-planet mining investment.”
    That didn’t stop Columbus nor Armstrong.

  9. The Antarctic treaty was formulated in similar circumstances – a place at the time fairly inaccessible, it was deemed important to avoid future conflicts over claims of sovereignty. It will be interesting to see how well it holds up when the ice melts and Antarctic resources become more easily available.

    Until a conflict arises, there will probably be no issue on this matter. Although we planted a flag on it, we did not claim the moon, and it is unlikely that any other country will either. There is so much territory out there and so few enterprises (governmental or private) able to reach it that conflicting claims are unlikely for a long time. The one area I can think of off the top of my head that is both relatively small, valuable, and close to earth is the polar region of the moon, where ice has been found in perpetually shadowed craters. Access to water on the moon is likely to be a huge advantage to a space colony.

    Unfortunately with the NASA still trying to figure out where they are going, under constrained budgets, it is likely that the Chinese will get there first.

  10. As an Honorary Consul for the Vogon Empire, I’d just like to point out that all your earthlings do not possess legal title to the planet on which you are currently squatting without legal title. The planet you call ‘Earth’ is in fact ours; you may consult the title deeds in our possession any time during office hours on Alpha Centauri.

    If you continue to ignore our Notice to Quit the Premises, we will have no choice but to send in the bailiffs to evict you.

    Have a nice day!

  11. Megalonyx warns: “As an Honorary Consul for the Vogon Empire, I’d just like to point out that all your earthlings do not possess legal title to the planet on which you are currently squatting”

    Oh yeah? Well, take this message back to your slimy Vogon masters: This planet was made especially for us. The bible says so.

  12. The Antarctic treaty was formulated in similar circumstances – a place at the time fairly inaccessible, it was deemed important to avoid future conflicts over claims of sovereignty. It will be interesting to see how well it holds up when the ice melts and Antarctic resources become more easily available.

    If and when all the Antarctic ice melts, we’ll be too busy bailing out to worry about Antarctica’s resources. If Antarctica’s ice completely melts, so will that of Greenland, and sea levels will rise by as much as 300 feet. Remember that iconic picture of the half-buried Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes? Picture it sticking up out of water instead.

  13. Seriously, we need to stop thinking like a bunch of competing tribes, and start thinking as one human race. When we stay divided, we conquer ourselves. When we unite as one, we accomplish greatness for all.

    I do not know what the secret will be to achieve unity, but there can be no doubt that we need to find it. One thing for sure — to get all to agree, there has to be something in it for all.

  14. Oh Great Hand, I’m having a bad day. Please add [blunder description deleted]. Thank you again.

    [*Voice from above*] There’s a lot of that going around.

  15. It is interesting to think about. The way I’d do it is establish a reserved park system in the present, and have every nation sign on to that. The second issue is to ban any activity that would be visible from Earth. Years ago I saw something about putting a giant Pepsi ad on the Moon, that and anything that ruins the Earth view is a no-no. (Since we can scarely see human activity on the Earth from the Moon likely not an issue.)
    Any entity that makes it to the Moon and exploits the resources will be regarded as a sovereign entity as well, with its own constitution and de facto property rights. I’m thinking an analog to the East India Company. Except in the resource rich areas of the poles a gentleman’s agreement to keep settlement/mining operations a discrete distance might also be in order. Then again having neighbors might not always be a bad thing. Never know when you need a cup of sugar.

  16. Troy said: “Years ago I saw something about putting a giant Pepsi ad on the Moon”

    That was Heinlein’s story, “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” He (the character in the story) used it as a threat to raise money for a private expedition.

  17. I’m sure all stories about advertising on the moon stem from the Heinlein story, but there are other stories out there including a hoax (or joke?) that fooled many Iranians into thinking Pepsi had plans to put an ad on the moon. The Heinlein story (never read it, but looked it up) uses dark material distributed to create the ad, where the Pepsi hoax/and others a laser as the method. Of course while the moon looks small in the sky any such scheme would be a grandiose undertaking and no doubt could not possibly make money from advertising.
    http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/pepsi_moonvertising_hoax_fools_thousands_in_iran