The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

space colony illustration
Space settlements developed by private interests might be instantly independent of terrestrial governments, for better or for worse. (credit: NASA/Ames)

Skin in the game

Opponents of space exploration almost always make two arguments. They will say we have enough problems here on Earth to solve without going somewhere else. That position, of course, completely ignores the possibility that solving Earth’s problems may require us to reach beyond Earth. They will also argue that the money spent on NASA could better be spent on other things, but fail to point out that NASA’s budget is less than one per cent of the federal budget. Not only would that amount have little effect if spent elsewhere, but government watchdog groups regularly contend more than the NASA budget is simply wasted by the federal bureaucracy. Neither of those favorites of opponents, therefore, seems particularly strong.

Still, government should have a more positive, fundamental case for pursuing space exploration. If the arguments for closing NASA down are less than compelling, continuing manned spaceflight especially has lacked a powerful rationale since Apollo. If private companies develop a manned spaceflight capacity, there will be even more pressure to develop an argument that has NASA continuing to spend taxpayers’ money to do something private industry was doing.

Some would argue, indeed, that NASA should simply contract out manned spaceflight at that point. To do that, however, might have fundamental legal and political implications.

If the settlement of the solar system were to be left to the efforts of private groups, it would seem governments on Earth would have little or no legitimate authority over any settlements established.

Using history as a guide, governments have arisen to control specific areas. As they became more established, governments asserted the right to pursue or protect interests beyond their boundaries—trade and trade routes, for example. With the advent of sailing ships and technology that allowed navigation of the oceans, governments on coasts extended their authority to protect its shipping even beyond its borders. With the coming of flight, governments developed the concept of airspace and asserted the right to defend their own. Note the extension of authority beyond borders was, initially, simply assertions. Strong nations could make them stick; weaker nations struggled. The recent decades have seen an attempt to establish international law as a real governing approach, but military and naval power is still important. Note also the organic quality of extending government authority from land to defined areas of sea connected to that land to air directly above that land. There is no organic link to another world.

None of that would seem to have anything to do with space—which is precisely the point. No government on Earth has any authority beyond Earth. No such authority was seriously contemplated until recently. The governing law in this area remains the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nation-states from claiming celestial bodies as their territory. The question becomes: If governments on Earth cannot claim territory on other bodies, and do not contribute to establishing a base beyond Earth, by what theory would a government of Earth have authority over such a base?

John Cabot sailed to North America in 1497 for England. The English tried several times over the next century to establish colonies in North America, finally succeeding in Jamestown in 1607. The English government supported those efforts. Spain pursued a similar approach, as did other European nations. They backed their claim of sovereignty by committing national resources. The United States Army, from Lewis and Clark to Zebulon Pike to John C. Fremont, established America’s claim to the western part of the continent. Again, sovereignty was established by the direct action of a strong government.

So, if the settlement of the solar system were to be left to the efforts of private groups, it would seem governments on Earth would have little or no legitimate authority over any settlements established. Such communities could become instantly independent. Some will say that would be a good thing. Fair enough. The point is, though, that if we want Washington, for example, to have some control over the settlement process in the long term, the US government will have to contribute materially to the effort. Supporting space exploration by doing it will be necessary to establish bona fides. To guide the process, governments must have skin in the game.