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ISS illustration
Selling the US portion of the ISS to commercial interests will free up funding for lunar exploration and other programs. (credit: NASA)

The Dinkin Commission report (part 2)

<< page 1: focus on reusable infrastructure building

10. Refocus subsidization efforts to relevant valuable services away from dead-end big science.

I love the pictures from the Hubble, but what would they fetch at market prices? Every other federal agency has to justify itself on a cost benefit basis. EPA has to clean the environment. Social Security has to help the elderly. The parks have to have constituents that enjoy them. The Federal Government needs to get away from big science just as the industrial research labs at AT&T, GE and IBM have and move toward near-term development. What science has the $100 billion spent on the ISS achieved?

More would have been accomplished in retrospect by spending all that money to establish a vibrant suborbital tourism industry. I asked John Carmack about how low costs could be driven down for suborbital tourism. He said that fuel costs could be as low as $30/person.

The answer is telling. For $100 billion, every person in the United States could be taken on an Alan Shepard-like trip to space. If we had suborbital transports that could carry 100 people six times per day that cost $200 million each, we could have maintenance and fuel costs rivaling commercial airline travel. They could carry 219,000 people per year. A fleet of 250 space planes could carry everyone in America to 100 km in five years. That would cost $50 billion. The other $50 billion could pay for $200/person in fuel, crew, and maintenance.

For $100 billion, every person in the United States could be taken on an Alan Shepard-like trip to space.

To figure out what to subsidize, subsidize everything, offer a prize for the best prize, vote, and poll. The credible way to poll and to forecast the price of different projects under consideration is to fund a policy futures exchange like the one pilloried at DARPA. Delegate the bulk of the risk to people like Peter Diamandis, Richard Branson, and Burt Rutan.

11. Scrap the education goal. Send it to the Department of Education.

A loser agency following a dead-end big science agenda is a sham. It teaches children a lot about political economy and interest group politics and little about exciting science. Get out of the way on this. Outsource this to the Department of Education. Forget Apple’s strategy of indoctrinating children in central planning and patient contempt for low cost, high volume standards. Adopt an exciting agenda and let kids read about it in the newspapers and see it on TV and the web instead of their history books and science books.

12. Create a space patent regime with longer expiration dates. Conduct complete technology transfer with no federally owned space related patents.

A great way to subsidize drug manufacturing in the heavens is to provide a multi-billion dollar incentive for drug manufacturers to do so. This can be done implicitly for free by allowing space exports to have longer patent protection. The active ingredient in drugs will be manufactured off Earth—count on it. That is also a very powerful lobby to have in your corner. By extending space patents, high-value manufacturing will move off Earth. Other exciting technologies will become more viable that have long lead times. Solar satellites, propulsion technologies, and colonization technologies may need longer protection than 20 years. By making a 25-year or 30-year patent, exo-Earth property rights will have an important anchor. More favorable exo-Earth copyrights, like less fair use, could also be quite valuable to someone contemplating a private Mars mission. If the only way to get the Mars landing video is pay-per-view, that could be big bucks.

To put teeth into technology transfer, force the federal government to hold no space patents. All contracts should allow the contractor to own the intellectual property at the end of the engagement. This will be priced back into the contract so that competitive providers will bid away the value of the extra intellectual property, but the asset ends up in the hands of entrepreneurs who can develop it.

13. Create a space spectrum regime. Sell off some astronomy frequencies to support off-world astronomy activities.

A great way to subsidize drug manufacturing in the heavens is to provide a multi-billion dollar incentive for drug manufacturers to do so. This can be done implicitly for free by allowing space exports to have longer patent protection.

Another bastion of property rights is spectrum. Start selling spectrum licenses off world. This may require renegotiating treaties. Spectrum policy is a proxy for industrial policy. In Australia, there were two ambulance companies that had to compete in a beauty contest to see which would get a state contract at a high fixed price. One requirement of their proposal was to demonstrate access to the spectrum. The ambulance companies participated in a spectrum auction and bid the spectrum up to an unusually high price. The spectrum became a proxy auction for the ambulance contract. By selling spectrum rights and time on communicatons/navigation satellites, developers can buy up lunar spectrum and invest in a development that makes lunar spectrum much more valuable—like a lunar hotel or a lunar space elevator—then monopolize all communication from the Moon to recoup the investment. By creating a choke point that can be purchased, a rudimentary industrial policy will be bootstrapped. This policy of first-come, first-serve as a monopoly has worked great for the United States in the intellectual property regime, in the land grant regime and in grazing and many more areas of terrestrial US policy. It’s not optimal, but heck—it’s proven as minimally effective, which is a giant leap from Utopian visions of space as a commons. We have had 30 years of tragedy of the commons. Fence in the commons and let’s get on with space development.

Support off-earth astronomy by selling some earth-based spectrum for telecom. $100 billion raised worldwide for some radio astronomy spectrum might support a top-notch facility on the far side of the Moon, especially if transport costs get down to something low.

14. Create a space monetary policy—offer low interest loans that would provide monetary stimulus when needed via a space branch of the Federal Reserve.

Space is likely to surpass the home planet’s economy in the next 500 years and perhaps in the next 150 years. Space needs its own monetary policy. There are a huge number of launch vehicles that are going underutilized now. If there were a system of low interest loans administered by the Federal Reserve, the USDA, or the Department of Interior (or maybe a new office in the Department of Space Security called “Exterior”), then lift capacity utilization can remain high in times of less optimism about space. By taking a page from the playbook of successfully keeping the terrestrial US economy humming, space can get humming too.

Monetary policy works by having low interest rates when factory utilization is low, inflation is low and unemployment is high. If the US gets ready to fission our currency into two flavors, one for the US terrestrial economy and another for space, we can have a lower interest rate and a tariff structure for space payments. The way telephone tariffs work is that you can lower the price for everyone at the same time by changing the tariff. Foreign trade works this way. As the Euro moves against the dollar, all Euro denominated contracts become cheaper if Europe has more spare capacity than the US. By creating a second kind of fiat money that is required to be accepted for space purchases, the US Federal Reserve and Mint can create an exciting collectible, keep space humming nicely and prepare for a time when the space economy eclipses the terrestrial economy. We do not need this today with one private astronaut. But a policy like this will take some time to implement. Maybe we can put a little more thought into this than we did into “Swiss dinars” in Iraq.

15. Renegotiate space treaties—lead a GATT-like effort to create space property rights.

I laid out the case for space property rights in another recent article. (See “Property rights and space commercialization”, the Space Review, May 10, 2004) If the US can’t lead on climate, land mines, accountability of soldiers, torture, or ABMs, (or decides to lead in the opposite direction everyone else wants to go), perhaps it can at least create a better red herring so it can do more of what it wants in the terrestrial sphere.

Better would be to lead. Take a stand and explain to the world why space property rights are important. The US established a great international system of treaties on monetary policy, trade, security and many other items after World War 2. They have worked great even if they are less relevant with the advent of a US hyperpower after the fall of the Soviet Union and international economic stasis.

Space is strategic. Choose something else to throw the utopian international community a bone. Ban land mines. It would make war more costly for others which would increase our edge. Ban nuclear testing. It would give us an edge with our supercomputer models. Or maybe just ban earthbound nuclear testing. If we are going to be hated anyway, let’s get a huge prize to make it worth the cost.

It’s time to rationalize space policy and space diplomacy treating space as the 21st century battleground and colonization prize that will establish who is ascendant in the 22nd and 23rd centuries.


We need space property rights. We are poised for a space equity boom. This may lead to fundamental game changes in strategic priorities that make the vast power shifts of the last 100 years look like children squabbling in a play pen. The US can lead this revolution, profit from it, and embrace it. If we do, we can extend our empire into the heavens and give birth to new nations in the New New Worlds. The game has not been won. It has not even been started. But if we want an interplanetary empire, we have to start now.

Take a stand and explain to the world why space property rights are important.

If we do not, we may be chastised by some wag Martian Defense Secretary 150 years from now as part of Old Earth. Maybe China will take up the torch. Maybe the Moses that will lead us to the planets will be Indian. The worst outcome would be that maybe no one will. Maybe we will never become an interstellar civilization and die out like the dinosaurs. If you want to curl up into fetal position and ignore the next wave of development and colonization, you will be forgotten just as all of Queen Isabella’s predecessors and contemporaries were.

Reach for species immortality, Mr. President. Breathe life into the heavens and spawn a new nation that will one day take our place as the most powerful just as leadership passed from Great Britain to the United States. Let your name be remembered forever.