#103 March 1997
Section 188.8.131.52.103.of the Artemis Data Book
[MMM previously reported on Mr. Wasser's ideas when they were first broached in the June 24 - July 7, 1991 issue of Space News, in MMM # 48, SEP '91 . Alan lives in New York City and he has served several terms on the NSS Board of Directors, some of them as an NSS vice-president.]
Is taxpayer's money the only way to get to Mars, or back to the Moon? If governments won't pay for it, is there no chance for human settlements in space?
I think there is a way to provide an incentive for privately funded settlement.
Let me explain.
In the 1960's many assumed that by the end of the century, mankind would be well established on the Moon, and perhaps even exploring Mars. Few people today remember or understand just what went wrong.
On February 3rd, 1966, the Soviet Union's Luna 9 made mankind's first "soft" landing on the Moon. The U.S. was still trailing in the "space race" and wouldn't make its first soft landing for four more months.
Newspapers ran serious articles about whether the Russians would use their landing to claim ownership of the Moon. Government officials worried about the supposedly overwhelming military advantage the U.S.S.R. would gain by seizing the "ultimate high ground". Reassuringly, the articles concluded that under traditional international law, no one could really claim the Moon until they had at least made a manned landing!
Those articles are an excellent reminder that fear of a Russian victory in the race to the Moon, leading to a Russian claim to the Moon, was a major reason Congress kept increasing the funding for Apollo. No congress would ever have spent 100 Billion Dollars (in 1994 dollars) just for some nebulous "prestige" benefit.
To be able to divert more money to the escalating Viet Nam war, Lyndon Johnson had to send Arthur Goldberg to the Russians to negotiate a quick truce in the space race. The result was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which, among other things, barred claims of "national sovereignty" in space.
The treaty doesn't actually bar private ownership of land beyond the Earth, but since national sovereignty has traditionally been the legal basis for private property rights in Anglo-Saxon law, the treaty is often assumed to have that effect.
I am convinced that that treaty provision is the real reason the space race ended, and space development has slowed to a crawl for the last quarter century. Significantly, space funding increased every year, in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R., until the passage of the 1967 treaty, and then decreased every year thereafter.
Although it is now often forgotten, the international law created by the 1967 treaty is not the norm in human history. The right to claim newly settled property has always provided the economic incentive for human expansion. (Would Europeans have ever settled America if they couldn't claim ownership of the land they settled?) In this case, immediately re-saleable property deeds are the only possible "product" that can be profitably brought back from space at current launch costs.
Space settlement will not occur until we get the historically normal condition restored. To really "enable the space frontier", we will have to re-establish a rule of law something like this:
Any private entity (presumably a consortium of companies) which establishes a permanently inhabited base on the Moon or Mars, (or any planet or asteroid), with guaranteed regular transportation shuttling between the base and the Earth, open to any paying passenger, immediately acquires full legall recognized and saleable title to hundreds of thousands of square miles around the base.
The land grant for the first such base on the Moon would need to be at least the size of Alaska, which would be worth almost four billion dollars at even $10 an acre. That's big enough to allow the winning consortium to begin earning back their expenditure immediately by selling off pieces of it, but still less than 4% of the Moon's surface.
[EDITOR: scan in graphic from hardcopy]
On Mars the land grant would have to be more like the size of the United States, worth about 23 billion dollars at $10 an acre. If that's still not enough, there is plenty of room to enlarge the grants.
Of course, the establishment of their space transport service, which enabled the consortium to win the land grant in the first place, will dramatically increase the value of their land over what it is worth today, when it is inaccessible. As with the land grants that paid for building America's trans-continental railroads, vast wealth would be created (out of thin vacuum, so to speak) by giving formerly worthless land real value and an owner.
Although neither has realized it yet, it would be a huge plum Congress could give to the aerospace companies, without costing the taxpayers anything! Suddenly there would be a market for Moon rockets. Imagine if a consortium of respected companies, led by, say, KKR or Mitsubishi, decided to try for the prize, and asked for bids on a rocket capable of shuttling back and forth to the Moon.
If we could get something like this enacted into U.S., and preferably international, law the space race would quickly resume, this time among consortia of private companies. After the first announcement of an attempt to set up a lunar base, others, all over the world, would say, "we can't let them claim the Moon, WE must get there first". Fear of competitors is still the best motivator.
Once competition gets going, companies all around the world will seek their governments' help and investment, perhaps reestablishing a healthy spirit of national competitiveness in space, despite the ban on national sovereignty.
There are six or seven common arguments against property rights as an incentive for space settlement, but there is a good answer to each.
Think of private ownership, officially recognized by the US government, of a Lunar Land Grant the size of Alaska, including that crater of permanently frozen water and the mountain on its shore with the almost permanently sunlit top, (which Ben Bova, in his wonderful new book "Moonrise" was kind enough to call "Mt. Wasser"). Such a land grant would be worth a fortune right now, with no way to get there. How many times more than that would it be worth once there really was a privately owned settlement on the mountain, with a space line going back and forth open to any paying passenger.
Right now, the National Space Society [NSS] is promoting a taxpayer funded "humans to Mars" program. I sincerely hope we succeed. But, in case we fail to get the government to put up those tens of billions of dollars, I think we should hedge our bets by simultaneously trying to get a space land grant law enacted.
We should be trying to find a Congressional representative to introduce legislation saying that, while the U.S. makes no claim of national sovereignty, until and unless a new treaty on outer space property rights is adopted, all U.S. courts are to recognize and defend the validity of a land claim by any private company (or group of companies) which met the specified conditions.
The legislation should urge other countries to adopt similar laws and instruct the State Department to try to negotiate a new treaty making the same rules international law. The U.S. law could encourage other nations to pass similar laws by limiting the recogni-tion of claims to entities based in countries which offer reciprocity to U.S. companies. The law could pledge to defend extraterrestrial properties by imposing sanctions against aggressors.
Since it would not cost anything, or need any appropriations, such legislation might pass as a minor revision of property law, without much publicity, which is probably best considering the "giggle factor" problem. After it was enacted we could start publicizing it, probably by getting someone to announce an attempt to meet the conditions and make a claim.
The framers of the 1967 treaty may have understood that it should not be a permanent situation; they allowed either side to opt out, on one year's notice. Some suggest the U.S. should exercise that right, for the whole treaty or just the "national sovereignty" provision. While I would personally like to see that happen, it is unnecessary and not worth the fight. A better alternative would be the opposite approach; to accommodate the provision by requiring that claimants be consortia of companies (or citizens) from several different countries. To bring the UN on board, it could even be required that at least one of the partners in each consortium be from a developing country.
Some who agree with the need for property rights and land grants have objected that technical and financial issues should take a higher priority than this legal issue. But, as non-technical space activists, we are not qualified to solve the technical issues. We can't raise the financing for a space mission, or find any other product which would make space settlement pay. The only thing we can do is influence governmental actions to restore an envi-ronment in which opening the frontier really will make someone a healthy profit fast. After many years of studying the question, I'm convinced this is the only way to do that - the only way WE could make a real difference.
Contents of this issue of Moon Miners' Manifesto