The Future is Now: Heroes and Property Rights in the Final Frontier

jtgagnon's picture
Submitted by jtgagnon on Mon, 2006-02-20 18:29

On a crisp evening not long ago, I took a brisk walk through the park near my home. The sun’s radiance had long since faded giving way to far-reaching darkness, and the moon—understatedly luminous—had risen. As I strolled through the park, I observed a man in the distance standing rigidly, but with his head bent back at an awkward angle. He appeared to be transfixed by something overhead. Curiosity got the better of me and I approached him. When I asked what he saw, he replied simply: “The future.”

I didn’t understand what he meant at first. But then, I gazed up and witnessed the moon, the stars and the vast expanse of space. And, feeling a strange sense of exhilaration, I started to grasp the meaning of his statement.

UNREALIZED POTENTIAL

Initially prompted by the space race between the United States and Russia during the Cold War, the aspirations and triumphs of science and technology unlocked the door to the “final frontier”—outer space. When mankind stepped through that door—perhaps most poignantly symbolized by Neil Armstrong’s famous declaration while on the moon—it demonstrated the potential of the human species and provided a brief, but important, glimpse into the possibilities of the future.

Unfortunately, nearly 40 years later, that potential still remains largely unrealized. Indeed, progress towards exploring and utilizing the final frontier has been stagnant—even diminishing—for some time now. The United States government, with its bloated $16.4 billion NASA budget, has accomplished shockingly little in recent years—a testament to the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. And while other countries possess state-sponsored space programs, such undertakings are seen as overwhelmingly expensive and impractical in a world where millions are dying of poverty and disease and the threat of conflict hangs ominously in the air.

FIGHTING FOR THE FUTURE

In such a context—in a world driven by a focus on misery—we should be grateful for and inspired by the individuals who, like the man I encountered in the park, can see and fight for the future. Fortunately, it seems that there is a small but growing contingent of individuals who are dead-set on making the future a reality. They are heroic in their actions and noble in their purpose: they dream and fight for human achievement, triumph, and for elevating men and women to the stars and beyond—literally.

To whom am I referring? Perhaps the most notable is Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne, who defied experts at NASA by creating a safe, reliable and cheap method of getting to space. He won the X-prize for his efforts and is currently developing SpaceShipTwo for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson, notorious in his own right, should be praised for his vision of the future—and his willingness to invest in it. He predicts that commercial flights to space from a spaceport near Las Cruces, New Mexico could begin as soon as the end of 2008. And a new group of entrepreneurs from Texas recently announced the creation of a new rocket development company and plans to construct a $265 million spaceport in the United Arab Emirates (Schwartz, NYT article).

The infusion of new life into the space industry notably comes from individuals, not from government. The mounting successes of these “space mavericks” are proof of what can be achieved and point to even greater feats in the coming years. And those feats will be driven by intense competition and innovation. One of the entrepreneurs, Hamid Ansari, said it best: “The number one reason for success is competition.” As more individuals start investing in the fledgling private space industry, the feats will grow in size and number.

The naysayers, especially those from NASA, long regarded privately-funded space travel to be hazardous and impossible. They were proved wrong. Despite the recent successes of innovators like Rutan, many still doubt that a viable privately-operated space industry can get off the ground. It can and it will. Visionaries like Branson and Ansari will fight for it. And so will others. There exist, however, numerous barriers that aim to ground the aspirations of—and the advances created by—the human spirit of creativity. The existing barriers must be examined, understood, and then negated.

BARRIERS TO THE FUTURE

There are, admittedly, many barriers to the long-term development of the private space industry; more than can be discussed in detail here, at any rate. The list includes recently-enacted laws and regulations involving federal technology export restrictions. Such legislation clearly threatens the commercial space industry and has negatively impacted satellite companies seeking insurance—the export controls prevent satellite companies from sharing technical information with non-U.S. insurance underwriters (Livingston). Numerous other limitations exist—many of them passed within the last decade—indicating increasing levels of legislative interference in commercial space endeavors.

Interestingly, there exists an even more odious limitation on the development of the commercial space industry: the Outer Space Treaty, to which virtually every major country is a signatory. With the rapid advances that are being made by private actors, the viability and the practicality of the Treaty must be addressed, and soon. If it remains unaltered and unopposed, humanity’s future in space will be unnecessarily—and irrationally—imperiled.

Article II of the Outer Space Treaty forbids national appropriation "by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." Article III provides that the "exploration and use of outer space . . . shall be the province of all mankind [and] . . . shall be free for exploration and use by all States . . . on a basis of equality." Article VI states that non-governmental entities' activities in space must be authorized and supervised by the appropriate state party, for they bear international responsibility for their actions. As has been shown by many legal scholars, for all practical purposes these provisions effectively eliminate the notion of both national and individual property rights in space or on celestial bodies.

The Treaty operates on a res communis basis, assuming that since outer space is the province of all mankind, all mankind should benefit equally from any activity that occurs there. This would mean, in essence, that if Branson or Ansari or some other entrepreneur decided to build a space resort on the moon or engage in mining operations on Mars, the profits would have to be shared equally with the rest of humanity. This is perverse. The fact that supposedly capitalist countries remain signatories to such a treaty shocks the conscience.

I wonder whatever happened to the property notion of first in time-first in right. Just why is having property rights in space a bad idea? Consider, briefly, what it would have meant if there had been no notion of property rights in the New World. What if the discoverers and colonists of the New World had been limited, the profits of their productive endeavors taken from them and shared with the rest of Europe? The very creation and growth of America and, indeed, the expansion and development of the world generally was the direct result of exploration driven by the incentive of acquiring property and wealth. Why should space be any different? To deny such a system in space—not merely a new world, but a multitude of new worlds—defies reason.

Now, whenever I stare into the night sky I, too, envision the future. It is a rich future, filled with promise, adventure, passion and the unbridled pursuit of human achievement. The possibility of such a future is being made possible today by heroes like Rutan, Branson and Ansari—and their efforts should be applauded. Let’s do them, ourselves and future discoverers/producers a favor by stepping up and speaking out for the right of individuals to acquire property and produce wealth without government intrusion, not only on earth—but beyond it.

Sources Quoted:

Livingston, David. “Space: The Final Financial Frontier.” Mars Society, August 10,
2000.
Schwartz, John. “Now it’s a Space Race.” New York Times. Feb. 18, 2006.
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of the States in the Exploration and Use of
Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies, Jan. 27, 1967, 18
U.S.T.2410, 610 U.N.T.S. 205.


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This is very good. Thank

John M Newnham's picture

This is very good. Thank you.

Very nice!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Nice uplifting piece, John. Thanks!

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