Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Murder Legal on the Moon? and Other Questions Posed by the Current Space Land Grab

That is one of the queries  that comes to mind when reading this piece Izabella Kaminska wrote for the paper.
I do hope the bête noire of some on the left, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar, with his emphasis on property rights, gets to read this essay.
From the Financial Times:

The dark side of space: how capitalism poses a threat beyond Earth
‘This is the point when a power-hungry billionaire finds a legal path to building his own Death Star’
Illustration for Izabella Kaminska's Capitalism’s threat to space
For a long time the idea of commercial space was an eccentric billionaire’s pipe dream. A fanciful desire of those with a penchant for Isaac Asimov novels.

Not so any more. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been sending payloads to space on a commercially viable basis since 2010. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is on track to take its first fully paid-up customers into near-space by the end of this year, all of which was revealed by my colleague John Sunyer’s recent piece on property space wars. And a company called Planetary Resources is making serious attempts to identify asteroids for commercial mining missions in the not too distant future.
Small surprise then that the issue of extraplanetary property rights has been raised by the likes of Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a company hoping to put private living quarters in space.
Above all, Bigelow is worried that if the capitalist west doesn’t go about annexing celestial bodies in the name of private enterprise, some other nation will go empire-building in its own name instead.

The argument pro property rights is simple. What we’re approaching is a new Wild West period for humanity. A time when anyone ingenious or intrepid enough to get themselves into space should rightfully be rewarded with ownership and autocracy over the land masses they discover or forge. Especially since this time around there are no native inhabitants, or at least none that we humans can divine, to be displaced in the process.

Call it the classic expansionist approach to property allocation. Or as comedian Eddie Izzard once joked, stealing countries with the cunning use of flags. If you can claim it and defend it, it becomes yours.

The problem with this way of thinking is that the Wild West is a poor analogy for space exploration. First there’s the access issue. Getting to the New World may have been harsh and costly, but it was still exponentially easier – and thus more equitable – than getting to space. Second, when the pilgrims set sail for America, they never looked back. Yes, they still depended on trade, but they did so on an equal footing with their trade partners because they had just as many valuable resources, if not more, to exchange.

The American war of independence was about shedding the yoke of the old land, which still desired to rule the colonies despite their self-sufficiency. The same clearly does not apply to the hostile territory of space. The chance that any colonist on Mars, the Moon or an asteroid will be self-sufficient enough to break their dependence on Earth is infinitesimally small. To the contrary, private missions are likely to remain dependent on national jurisdictions for launches and life support for decades if not centuries.

Is it a risk, then, that nation-states will see this as an invitation to go empire-building in space instead? Unlikely. Article II of the UN Outer Space Treaty already sets out the parameters clearly: “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.”...MUCH MORE
Izabella Kaminska is an FT Alphaville reporter