Posted by: spacewritinguy | April 3, 2008

The Convoluted Life of a Space Moderate

Okay, imagine for a moment that you care about space: not office space, but the inky black emptiness above our heads filled with planets, stars, and nebulae. And let us assume that you have an opinion about what human beings should do about that infinite place. Would it surprise you to learn that there are as many opinions about such things as there are geeks at a science fiction convention? Or more?

It’s like this: space is as much a political issue as anything else on Earth, and yet the average voter thinks it’s all about whether NASA has a budget or not. Would that it were that simple. Here are some sample opinions out there about space:

Space is for Robots Only: In this view, we should send cute little (“little” being about the size of a golf cart) robots to places like Mars and the Moon to look around and send pictures back for people in white lab coats to examine and formulate theories about the universe therefrom. In addition to such rovers, we can also send satellites that take pictures of other bodies–the sun, planets, asteroids, etc.–from space. People supporting such ideas might also support bigger, better telescopes here on Earth. But that’s it. Human exploration, in this view, is a big frickin’ waste, and will only result in humans “screwing up” other planets.

Humans Have Their Place: Under this notion, a person might believe that the primary and best means of exploring the universe should be automated robots, but there are times when humans can be useful, if only to inspire young kids and hop around the Moon or Mars occasionally.

Humans Should Rule: If you follow this line of thought, robots exist only to serve human exploration of the solar system. For instance, landers or orbiters sent to the Moon or Mars should only be built with the idea of supporting future human landings on those worlds.

So far, these three views have address only activities performed within NASA. Now imagine combining the views above with the following:

Government Should Explore While the Private Sector Exploits: This is more or less my view, and it is considered “moderate” in the pro-space community. It means that I support the notion that some activities should be performed by government: first-time exploration, building infrastructure, developing new technologies, establishing initial outposts, etc. Other activities are better performed by the private sector: mass-producing new technologies, establishing commercial enterprises within infrastructure facilities (spaceports, space stations, etc.), providing routine transportation services to known destinations, and setting “rules of the road,” like civil law and consumer protection regulations.

Government Should Get the Hell Out of the Way: This was my view a couple years ago, but I’ve read and experienced enough to shy away from this purely libertarian view. The most prominent group adhering to this view is the Space Frontier Foundation, which essentially holds that government is inherently broken and that only the private sector can rationally develop the resources of space. This is primarily an economic libertarianism, emphasizing mining the Moon and asteroids, establishing commercial domination over Mars and the outer planets, and essentially extending global capitalism into multi-global capitalism.

I have no objection to these ideas in general, however, these folks tend to overlook the private sector’s reluctance to spend money on activities that don’t guarantee a return on investment, like infrastructure building, exploration, and pure scientific research. All of these activities are the proper province of government (going back to Columbus), as no sane investor will put up the money for them, especially when the payoffs are likely to be intangibles like “prestige,” “convenience,” or “knowledge.”

We Come in Peace: And then there’s the added wrinkle of military activities in space. Since the 1960s, there have been concerned citizens who have striven to avoid extending our Earth-based conflicts into outer space. While it might be a bit of a generalization, it is a safe bet that individuals who wish to prevent the militarization of space are also those who support a robots-only future, as militarization of space would fall under the category of “screwing up” the solar system. However, these folks overlook the fact that space is already militarized, to the extent that we have launched military surveillance satellites, communication satellites, and global positioning satellites. The recent Chinese and American anti-satellite (ASAT) tests are merely the most blatant warlike activities related to space. In defense of the pacifist side, I must point out that a large amount of debris in low-Earth orbit (LEO) would prevent anyone from launching anything into space, be it a missile or the most peaceful probe. Space war benefits nobody.

The Military Has Its Place: The Government Should Get the Hell Out school tends to ignore a few important facts about capitalistic exploitation of the solar system. Unless they renounce their citizenship completely (another issue/science fiction novel entirely), the individuals mining and building in space will be citizens of some nation on Earth. That will give the nations of origin some claim or at least interest in their activities. If one nation’s citizens conflicts with another’s, it is likely that military assistance will be called for, since only government has professionals charged with the legal use of force. In addition, governments don’t like “free agents” running around loose, mucking up relations with other nations. Let’s say, as a hypothetical exercise, that employees of an American company and employees of a Chinese company start duking it out over helium-3 mining rights on a certain piece of real estate on the Moon. How long would it take before their respective nations would be forced to get involved, if only to prevent a conflict on the Moon from spreading back to Earth?

On a more civil and mundane level, national, international, or supranational bodies could provide the equivalent service of the Coast Guard, which is charged on Earth with guarding borders, preventing importation of harmful materials (drugs, nukes, other contraband) or diseases, and rescuing individuals in distress. National or international space entities could also provide important infrastructure items like communication satellites, navigation beacons, and emergency aid stations.

Space is U.S. Territory: A reasonable claim could be made that the Moon should be U.S. territory, since we’re the only ones to have place astronauts, flags, and footprints on said real estate. Of coure equal claims could be made by the Chinese or the Russians in the future, as possession is nine-tenths of the law, even in space: if you can hold it, you can claim it.

Space Should Be Developed Cooperatively: This philosophy makes sense if you believe a) only a government can afford long-term investments in space and more importantly b) only multiple governments can afford truly big projects, like the International Space Station, a lunar outpost, or a base on Mars. Folks holding this view also seek to avoid American (or Russian or Chinese) domination of space and to develop international partnerships that encourage peace, cooperation, and understanding.

Space is the Common Heritage of Mankind: Believe it or not, this is a wholly different perspective from the Space Should Be Developed Cooperatively view. Why? Because unlike the previous argument–which states that space should be explored, developed, and settled by as many nations as possible–this view states that while only a limited number of nations can explore, develop, and explore space, space actually belongs to everybody. In practice, this means that any benefits, discoveries, or profits made in space, even by a coalition of multiple spacefaring nations, must be shared in the form of a tax with all the other nations of the world. This is the problem with the Moon Treaty and its Earth-based progenitor, the Law of the Sea Treaty. While idealists might hold that such a sharing of benefits is a good thing, the practical result, based on human nature, is that no one will develop or explore space if they think they’ll have to share with someone else. This would apply to private businesses or a coalition of nations.

Mind you, I haven’t even included the conflicts related to specific hardware architectures (what types of spacecraft should be used to execute the aforementioned mission objectives). Now imagine that you are surrounded by dozens of individuals, each of them with different levels, flavors, and intensities of the preceding ideas. Suddenly, even something “simple” like exploring space becomes incredibly complicated. For better or worse, politics has entered space. We’d best learn how to handle said politics at a personal level now before larger and less malleable organizations take over.


  1. I found your blog on MSN Search. Nice writing. I will check back to read more.

    Eric Hundin

  2. Your point that no one would develop outer space if they think they would have to share their resource was exactly the reason the US sought agreement on seabed minerals in the LOS COnvention, and why we worked so hard to get the 1994 agreement that modified the 1982 Convention in line with Reagan’s directives. Without the Convention to provide recognition of the _exclusive_ right to develop a specific resource, development won’t take place, and the more greater the investment, the more true that is.

  3. No, I’m not talking about exclusive economic zones. UNCLOS still requires any signatory mining X territory to pay a portion of their profits to the UN for distribution to landlocked nations hurt by price shocks related to minerals mined from the seas. An example, as I understand it, would be that anyone drilling for oil or manganese nodules at sea would have to pay a tax to reimburse Uzbekistan or some other landlocked mineral-rich area because the price of minerals dropped. This short-circuits market forces and reduces profits. Another issue with UNCLOS is that any company/entity prospecting in the open seas must evaluate two sites, with one site going to the UN to be assigned as it sees fit. A third issue was made slightly better by the 1994 agreement. Instead of requiring mining nations to share their technologies with third-world nations, the UN now “requests” (or some such euphemism) that mining nations engage in some sort of technology cross-training with third-world nations, which amounts to the same thing.

    Thanks for reading.

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