Monday, November 16, 2009

So, How would a Space Land Rush work?

It's been pointed out that this blog's initial entry, A Bit of the 22nd Century, overstated the case on bringing bounty back from space. This is true, though the overstatement is slight. The claim was that an individual couldn't return from space with materials found there; the 1960's Treaty on Outer Space doesn't speak about individual rights, only those of signatory nations. An individual could mine the Moon without the ore being confiscated. Though, as only nations have even the remotest chance of reaching the Moon or other near-Earth destinations, it's pretty much a distinction without a difference.

All agree that without the impetus of private and national ownership, exploring space will remain stuck in low gear with precious little beyond national pride to justify manned exploration. Others have explored this idea; one, Alan Wasser, has outlined his ideas in a lot of detail. However, Alan's ideas suffer from the affliction shared with the rest of the space community: that space exploration is so natural and obvious a goal that we should immediately devote our efforts to it. I agree with this notion, but I also understand that the majority of people do not prioritize space exploration in the same way. While the majority of American feel space is important, it's a minority that place space in their top ten priorities for the US Government to pursue. Hence this notion of a Federation controlled land rush tied together with non-proliferation and technology transfer: to raise space exploration as an immediate priority for the peoples of the world.

As far as the Land Rush goes, it's important to set the prizes high enough that nations and corporations are enticed. Let's start with precedent: it's important to take into account the six US manned landings on the Moon and the three Soviet sample returns. I propose that those precedents are awarded with Lunar land grants. Russia, for its unmanned sample returns receive a plot ten kilometers in diameter, and the US for its manned landings receives a plot one hundred kilometers in diameter, each roughly centered on each landing site. The Federation won't allow gerrymandering in space, so the land grants must be as circular as possible while still respecting natural surface features. Any future manned or unmanned sample returns will be granted a similarly sized plot, with each nation, corporation or individual able to receive a maximum of ten plots. All future sample returns must be one kilogram or larger in order to qualify for a land grant.

Now for the big prizes: the Federation is in the business of promoting the settlement of space. For the first nation, corporation or individual who establishes and maintains a manned presence on the Moon for ten continuous years, they are awarded a land grant one thousand kilometers in diameter. Any subsequent ten year settlement will receive a land grant six hundred kilometers in diameter -- approximately one tenth the area of the first. Anyone who can establish a settlement continuously manned for five years will receive a land grant four hundred kilometers in size. The Federation will make land grants in this fashion until 80% of the territory set aside for settlement has been doled out. Again, up to ten such land grants may be accumulated by any nation, corporation or individual.

As Phobos is smaller, the prizes are similarly diminished:
- First 10 year settlment: 20 km diameter
- Subsequent 10 year settlments: 15 km diameter
- 5 year settlements: 10 km diameter
- Manned sample return: 5 km diameter
- Unmanned sample return: 1 km diameter

To ensure that those manning any settlements, it is also proposed that any settler who stays more than half the term of the settlement will receive a land grant out of the overall grant. So, if a settler lasts the entire five years of a five year settlement, a portion equal to the size of the unmanned sample return will be granted to them. If they don't serve the entire term of a settlement, their share is prorated based on the length of their service.

Further notes: I'm trying to come up with a third incentive to bind Federation nations together beyond non-proliferation and technology transfer. The natural direction to take is some sort of Federation Bank and financial system. My thought are rough but I'm envisioning the Federation issuing credits based on the basket of currencies of its member nations, and requiring all land sales to be conducted in these credits. One aspect of terran finance that I would like to change is its focus on short term returns; any suggestions one might have for a financial system geared towards the long term would be welcome.

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.