Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Bit of the 22nd Century

There's a tremendous opportunity in space right now, a rare alignment of technology and interests that only comes once every couple of generations. What's missing is something to push it over the edge and get it flying, to pique people's and industry's interests in such a way that it takes off and is sustainable. In the wake of the Augustine report, many articles have been written discussing where to go and what launchers to use, but the most important aspect, the political one, has gotten scant attention. The Obama Administration is facing a spectrum of problems, most with more political prominence than space exploration. In order for the space community to get the resources it thinks it deserves, it needs to change that.

Politics in the modern world is a "chase the money" affair. The Augustine Commission recognized that, hence the effort it spent on exploring the creation of economies in space. If the business community has stake in space exploration, then the politicians will follow. The problem here is that existing space business either exists to service the military or government, or is in the overall scheme of things small potatoes. Any of the proposed new economies (low earth orbit transport, space refueling, etc) strike even the space enthusiast as a bit forced and vulnerable to social whim. After all, if the public decides it wants to save some money and leave the International Space Station effort, it also ends up saving money because it doesn't need these forced economies any more.

We need a truly compelling reason to make the leap into space and stay there. One that resonates with Americans and all peoples of the world at a visceral level. One that grabs a business-person's imagination, and that loosens the pursestrings of investors. One that is a politically a slam dunk; that crosses the aisle and solves a host of problems for the Obama Administration and Congress. I can come up with only one thing that does all this:

A good, old fashioned, land rush.

America exists because it offered people the land and ability to pursue their hopes and dreams. The power of the untamed frontier is immense in the human psyche; so great that even though most of the first pioneers who came the New World died even more kept coming. Those first few who were able to hang and survive have left lasting and indelible legacies for not only all of us but especially their descendants. Families who count the survivors of the Mayflower are among the richest and most influential in America. That's a powerful motivator for anyone.

However, as it stands today, it's not possible for an individual, a corporation or a country to own land anywhere in space. The 1960's Treaty on Outer Space prohibits that; in fact, its terms are so strict that even if someone found a resource worth mining on the Moon and brought it back to Earth, it could be confiscated as ill gotten gain. That needs to change.

The International community must recognize that the Treaty on Outer Space did it's job: it prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from militarizing space. It's time to continue that work while taking into account today's realities. Such an effort to selectively relax this treaty is a major undertaking, and most of the world will point out that it will serve the interests of perhaps half a dozen countries. If the door is opened on a new treaty for Outer Space, the effort will have to similarly all encompassing so that all nations will have a reason to throw their support behind it.

The 1960s was a magic era for space exploration, and the best explanation for why it occurred is that President Kennedy, in proposing to land a man on the Moon, really plucked a decade from the 21st century and dropped it into the now. Mankind can do the same thing again. A grand stroke that would excite and unite people would be to take a page from Star Trek and create the Federation of Space Faring Nations, a united federation devoted to the peaceful exploration and colonization of space.

Any member of the Federation would have to offer to sell their space technology to any other member. Member nations would have to agree to strict non-proliferation terms and other non-agression clauses. Part of the creation of this Federation would be a legal mechanism to selectively and progressively relax the 1960's treaty on Outer Space and allow private ownership of land outside of Earth. The Federation would choose where to allow private ownership in stages, starting with the Moon and Phobos. First person there gets their forty acres, you bring your own mule. Of course, any outpost would have to be continuously manned for some length of time, say five years, and every member nation would have to establish at least one outpost.

Politically, it works on several levels for the Obama administration. It allows the US to use its space technology as a lure to pull other nations into its designs for non-proliferation and technology transfer, while providing cover for Congress to financially support America's space effort. Governments and corporations would give space serious consideration, as certain parts of the solar system could be worth quite a lot in the future and they wouldn't want to be left out. America's corporate aerospace industry would benefit handsomely as it begins to build machines that allow anyone to claim their parcel in space.

Finally, the profit motive would function fully in space, and we would be in awe of how quickly men would spread in the bodies opened up by the Federation. Hope would be handed to a new generation in that a powerful mechanism will be built to prevent global conflict while opening up a new frontier not only in their imaginations but in reality as well.

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