After Apollo: Creating an economically robust space policy by learning from the American West
Myriad details and thorny questions
A program as large as taming a new frontier, be it the American West or space, involves getting many details right, and resolving numerous difficult issues. The economic development of asteroids, and of space resources in general, will take a wide range of skills. Some of these challenges are outlined here, in five categories: technology; economics and markets; issues of law, justice, and policing (including property rights); ethics; and, finally, the coordination of private and public efforts.
NASA is well positioned to create some of the necessary infrastructure, mostly by developing new technologies. Other agencies, such as the Department of the Interior—via the US Geological Survey—will have expertise to contribute too. Many of the required technologies overlap with NASA’s current goal of sending humans to an asteroid, so NASA will need little alteration of its priorities, for the moment. Other technological needs are driven by the specific demands of economically viable asteroid mining; these will be new to NASA. For example, the interest payments on a $5-billion loan impose a strong “time is money” imperative on all off-planet activities. Rapid transport will be essential. Some of this technology development will be able to make use of the International Space Station, injecting new purpose into its mission.
While the technological challenges are many, it is possible to outline a strategy to address them. Initially, astronomers will be needed to map out the territory, as only 10% of the nearby asteroids have been found so far, and even fewer have known mineralogical compositions. Then, even as we map out potentially profitable sites, space and mining engineers will need to test out ways to mine in space economically.
Economists, mining companies, and marketing experts will need to make refined estimates of profitability, in the face of fluctuating prices and changing markets, and likely PGM recovery rates from asteroids. Economic considerations will have technical repercussions. For example, the relative importance of accurate robotic assays will rise.
Diplomats and international lawyers will need to establish a hospitable international legal framework. To Europeans, the Louisiana Purchase gave the US a legal claim to the West. In space no state has any claim. Effective US sovereignty over the Louisiana Purchase was tenuous for quite a while, and was contested over large areas by Spain and Britain. The US response was active and multi-formed, and included, for example, legal licensing of trappers in the territory.
The existing 1967 United Nations “Outer Space Treaty” (officially, the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space”) is completely oriented toward the principal of a “common heritage of mankind.” This means that it is impossible to own a celestial body, at least de jure. This is a major disincentive to any venture capitalist, as their expenditures may be lost if the goods they return are forfeit. In Who Owns the Moon (2009), Virgiliu Pop argues that the “good of mankind” principle prevents the profitable use of space resources, and that establishing ownership de facto is the most likely route that resource development will take. He cites John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher, who argued that private development of land left “waste in common … does not lessen, but increases the common stock of mankind.” Such arguments have become dubious on Earth, as we realize the finiteness of its resources, but in space such limits are very distant indeed.
Once a single profitable asteroid mining venture succeeds, it will start an “asteroid rush.” The best ore-bearing asteroids will then suddenly become highly valuable properties, and all the usual legal, policing, and justice issues that apply in a gold rush will necessarily come into play.
Central to a venture capitalist’s concerns are property rights. How can a company establish a mining claim? How can anyone own a piece—or all—of a celestial body? Are asteroids even “celestial bodies” under the law? After all, if you can move it, is it still celestial? (A recent Keck Institute for Space Studies report showed that a small asteroid could be moved from its orbit around the Sun to an orbit around the Earth.) Is it enough to do a private survey? To land on an asteroid and plant a flag? (This is how entire terrestrial continents were claimed in the past.) Or is it necessary to return an ore sample to Earth? If so, can an entire asteroid be claimed following the return of a very tiny sample? What if the asteroid is 1,000 kilometers across? How can claims be enforced? What if a rival alters the asteroid’s orbit to hide it? Is there a penalty? (And who decides, under what jurisdiction, and who enforces such a ruling?) Once there are repair crews, to tend to the expensive mining equipment, there must be safety regulations, and provisions for emergency services. Public safety is also an issue. If an enterprise moves an asteroid towards Earth for more convenient processing, what rules must they follow to avoid an unintended impact with our planet? (“Environmental Impact,” indeed!) If a piece of mined material lands in my backyard, do I own it? Who gets to tax asteroid mining, and what are the most societally beneficial taxation regimes?
Establishing these rules will be a busy and necessary occupation for both diplomats and lawyers. Any rules we set up beforehand will surely need to be modified as the exploitation of space resources grows. And remember that platinum group metals are just the pump primer. The “tailings” from PGM mining will include ultra-pure iron, already separated and ground into small grains, which can be used for any number of in-space development projects, such as space based solar power systems, at a low incremental cost.
There are ethical issues too. Asteroid mining will destroy pristine environments containing clues to the early solar system, and possibly to the origins of life. If we grind up these asteroids for profit, will we have lost something as special as the Amazon rainforest or the Arctic wilderness? This is not a purely altruistic consideration. There may be materials on asteroids of great potential value, but of which we are now ignorant. Take for example, quasicrystals. These are strange, newly discovered materials, for which the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded. The only naturally occurring quasicrystal found to date appears to have come from an asteroid.
How do we avoid Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”? Here the history of the American West is not a good guide. Indian treaties were routinely discarded, as soon as the hint of a valuable resource was discovered on reservation territories. Can we, or should we, try to create the space equivalent of the far more successful National Parks? Who would serve as trustees for these parks? The United Nations? A seemingly mild proposal to reserve the Saha crater on the far side of the Moon for radio astronomy has already proved difficult. As Karen Cramer (1997) notes, “mining, astronomy, geology, solar power, manufacturing, and landing rights are not all compatible.”
How will we coordinate the various activities of multiple federal agencies that the commercial utilization of space will elicit in the US government? President Obama’s new National Space Policy (2010) directs NASA to “pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to ... identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects.” [emphasis added] The Department of Commerce already has a small Office of Space Commercialization. Extending federal interests to asteroids will require, at a minimum, an Interagency Working Group, with participants drawn from several departments, including Commerce, State, Justice, Defense, Interior, Transportation, and, of course, an economically re-purposed and re-focused NASA. To involve a wider range of actors, beyond the federal government, a Presidential commission, like the 2004 Aldridge Commission, which defined the G.W. Bush Vision for Space Exploration, could be highly beneficial. Such a commission could draw on the expertise developed over the past decade by private US studies. For example, the Colorado School of Mines has held an annual “Space Resources Roundtable” since 1999. The creation of permanent institutions to support and regulate this vast new resource regime should, perhaps, wait until its specific needs emerge and are better understood.
Enacting a capitalist space policy
President Obama has called for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025. As he said, “in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space—we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.” But the President’s call has generated only a lukewarm response. The problem, I believe, is the lack of a compelling “Why?” Why go to an asteroid? The 2009 Augustine Committee report, titled “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation,” argued that the asteroids are valuable as stepping-stones to Mars, better than the Moon in various ways. But putting humans on Mars is so distant and is only interesting as a prelude to possible settlement. And space settlement is itself not particularly compelling for many people. So the President’s program has had only mild appeal. The uncertainty over the value proposition of NASA today—given the end of the Space Shuttle, the current federal budget crunch, and the ongoing arguments over free market versus public development strategies—undergirds this weak public response. NASA’s $18-billion budget seems large if it only supports pure science and space spectaculars. But considered as an infrastructure investment that will open up great economic possibilities, it is actually quite modest.
Re-directing NASA’s priorities towards a strategy of developing space resources for commerce may have a better chance of engaging the public and industry. And once profits flow, who needs public enthusiasm? Profitable asteroid mining ventures will be self-propelled. And they will pay taxes. Within a decade or so, the federal government could reduce the cost and risk barriers to commercial exploitation of asteroids to a level that venture capital will be a viable path forward. Once a profit making industrial apparatus is in place, the government can step aside from that aspect, even as its role in the legal and diplomatic side of space capitalism will increase. Put simply, enabling profit should be the centerpiece of any 21st Century national space policy.
Like the Apollo program, the Ming Dynasty fleets of the early 1400s projected sovereign power, but they were costly and they brought no economic bounty. Bureaucrats argued that there were more pressing needs at home, and the fleet was dismantled. The challenges to Chinese seafaring supremacy were far closer than they imagined. Can the US learn from this mistake and approach space with a new purpose?
NASA’s primary directive, as already legislated under President Reagan, in a 1985 update to the 1958 Space Act, is to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” With the challenges now arising to the nation’s economic leadership in space, the US should organize a strategy around this already established, but under-implemented, goal. US-led capitalism in space can bring unprecedented benefits to all of Earth’s inhabitants. A far-sighted leveraging of government investment, similar to that pursued by Thomas Jefferson in the historic West, will empower US capitalism to lead the economic development of the space frontier.
I thank BC Crandall of Space Wealth and Jonathan McDowell of planet4589.org for valuable discussions and advice.
An earlier version of this article, aimed at the foreign policy community, was published in the Harvard International Review (March 2012). Much has happened since then. Commercial space has advanced on several fronts: The Space X Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station; Planetary Resources announced its business plan to mine asteroids; NASA awarded $1.1 billion, in total, to SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada, to continue their work on commercial crew spacecraft; and the B612 Foundation announced plans for a privately-funded mission to detect all near-Earth asteroids larger than 100 meters diameter. These are all positive steps.
The National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council are currently conducting an important policy review of “NASA’s Strategic Direction.” The public (you!) are invited to comment, via a web form, through August 17.
My input to the committee was that NASA’s new mission should be: “Enable the commercial development of space resources.” Anything less will inevitably doom the Agency, and nullify American ventures in space. I encourage everyone to provide their input to this study.
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