The Magazine

Jump-Starting the Space Program

The profit motive would do the trick.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By JIM PREVOR
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The moon belongs to everyone

The best things in life are free,

The stars belong to everyone

They gleam there for you and me.

--From the 1927 musical Good News

Star-gazing may be free, but the Human Space Flight Plans Committee, a panel of luminaries and experts appointed by President Obama to assess the future of America's manned space efforts, has found that space exploration is not. The gist of the committee's imminent report: Our current levels of expenditure will not support a return to the moon, a journey to Mars, or much beyond keeping the space station operating.

This sad conclusion dovetails with recent news reports marking the 40th anniversary of man's landing on the moon. All of them noted that not much outer space exploration has occurred since the United States answered President Kennedy's famous call: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

The reason little has happened since 1969 was typically reported as having something to do with the end of the Cold War. And certainly, President Kennedy wanted to show the world that the United States was number one in what he called "the battle .  .  . between freedom and tyranny." But few commentators asked why no other motivation for investment in space had emerged in the United States or other countries. The reason is simple: a lack of incentives.

What actually happened to space exploration is that just before the moon landing, in 1967, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies went into force. This treaty bans the use of nuclear weapons in outer space. More relevant to the future of space exploration, it also prohibits any nation from claiming ownership of any part of outer space. The treaty states that "outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." And that, in a nutshell, explains why few are interested in spending money to go there.

The principal benefits from space exploration are national prestige and technological spinoffs. Thus, a rising power such as China is interested in expanding its space program. Although peaceful economic exploitation is not prohibited, in the absence of property rights a company or a country probably could not capitalize on a mineral discovery or the settlement of a planet. Further, the treaty specifies that all exploration and use of outer space "shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of the degree of their economic or scientific development."

On earth, there is a traditional distinction between terra nullius, "land belonging to no one," which can be claimed through discovery and settlement, and res communis, the high seas and other areas that cannot be claimed by any country. This distinction allowed Christopher Columbus, for example, to both promise much and bargain hard. He was seeking not only a western route to Asia, but also gold, territory, and commercial opportunities. Had he been barred from claiming lands and precious metals for his patrons, it is doubtful anyone would have funded his voyages--or that he would have wanted to go himself. He insisted on retaining 10 percent of the profits of the voyage, hereditary governorship of the lands he hoped to discover, and much else.

The implication is obvious. If President Obama is interested in exploration of outer space, he should call for a renegotiation of the space treaty, a process that might be accelerated in light of our right to withdraw from the treaty with one year's notice. The idea would be to allow free travel through outer space, much as on the high seas, but also the claiming of celestial bodies or portions thereof based on some formula. It is not in the world's interest to encourage every country to spend a fortune just to touch a planet so as to lay claim to it, but perhaps, sovereignty could be earned via actual settlement or use of a planet over a period of time.

Right now the president's space committee can only stand as a supplicant begging for funds. An article in the St. Augustine Record captures the mentality:

It is up to Obama, says Marcia Smith, formerly a space expert at the Congressional Research Service and now a consultant, to decide whether human space exploration is a worthy priority or an unaffordable luxury.