July 2, 2012
In the aftermath of a major Space Shuttle accident, an incumbent President decides that our civil space program needs a bold new strategic direction. In a major public speech, he outlines a path to return to the Moon and go to Mars. The space agency responds with full-color sales brochures, committee meetings, community workshops, and a thousand charts outlining the steps they will take to carry out the new direction. A couple of years pass, a new President takes office, and then – promptly cancels the initiative of the previous administration.
Sound familiar? This has happened in our space history – twice.
In 1989, after much agency soul-searching following the loss of seven crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, President George H. W. Bush took to the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced what was soon dubbed the “Space Exploration Initiative (SEI),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit, first to the Moon and then to Mars. NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture imaginatively named the “90-Day Study.” It called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft and numerous robotic elements, including lunar and martian orbiters and landers (most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs). Financial analysts somehow arrived at an aggregate cost of $600 billion (which also included assembly of ISS) and everyone gasped.
After numerous politicians and bureaucrats scoffed disapproval, a special ad hoc group was convened to re-examine the objectives and devise a less expensive approach for implementing SEI. Their report was delivered and immediately put on the shelf. In the ensuing three years, a new NASA Administrator was named, Congress refused to increase the NASA budget, and President Clinton cancelled SEI.
In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing its crew of seven. The agency investigated and concluded that foam shed during launch destroyed the integrity of the vehicle’s thermal protection system, causing the loss of the Shuttle. In January of the following year, President George W. Bush announced a new strategic direction for space – the “Vision for Space Exploration (VSE),” a long-range program to send people beyond low Earth orbit – first to the Moon and then to Mars. NASA responded to this challenge by outlining an architecture to implement the new direction that called for the development of new launch vehicles, new modules, transfer spacecraft, and numerous robotic elements (including orbiters and landers for both the Moon and Mars – most of them extensions of existing hardware and designs).
Once again a committee was convened to examine the agency’s implementation of the new direction. Another report was written and put on a shelf. During numerous meetings and workshops spread over several years, an architecture emerged – accompanied by many charts (all electronic this time – technology marches on!). President Obama terminated the VSE in April, 2010 during a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (“We choose NOT to go to the Moon!” – the historical resonances astound!).
What, if anything, is to be learned from these two sequences of events? According to Mark Albrecht, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council in the Bush-41 White House, it means that the space agency is fundamentally broken – comprised of various constituencies that protect turf and resist implementing any new direction that may challenge or threaten their existence. However, there is another possible reading of the situation. The space agency was in a very different predicament during SEI than it was during the VSE. In 1990, NASA had a clear but unfulfilled mission – Space Station Freedom, for which not a single element had yet been launched. NASA’s anxiety at the time was uncertainty in being able to execute both Station and SEI simultaneously. The oft-quoted 30-year, $600 billion cost of SEI, repeated by the media to denigrate the effort, included construction and operation of Station, which was to serve as both an orbital platform for missions beyond LEO and as a source of hardware (e.g., habitation modules) that could be adapted to trans-LEO missions. Even so, most of the costing assumptions in the 90-Day Study were inflated beyond reason, presumably following in the footsteps of former NASA Administrator James Webb, who after reportedly being told that Apollo would cost about $20 billion, asked for more than $35 billion as a cushion.
In contrast, the VSE came along just as NASA was in the middle of ISS construction, with the program’s end clearly in sight. There was no future plan for human spaceflight beyond Shuttle/ISS and the agency sorely needed some high-level direction. The idea of Shuttle replacement came from the Columbia Accident Investigations Board report, which contended that the Shuttle system was inherently dangerous and that we ought to develop a new space transportation system as soon as possible. In contrast to uninformed reporting and Internet mythology, President Bush did not “retire” the Shuttle – he ordered that it first be brought back to flight status (so that ISS construction could be completed) and then transitioned and replaced with new human spacecraft capable of journeys beyond LEO (which became the now-cancelled Project Constellation). In contrast to SEI, the VSE came to NASA with price limits already in place – after a small incremental increase in the early years, it was to cost no more than we were then spending on human spaceflight (about $8 billion per year) with funding available from the gradual decline in spending on the Shuttle/Station program. Finally, unlike SEI, which never had much Congressional support, NASA was given two Authorization bills (in 2005 and 2008) that strongly endorsed the VSE (many VSE goals, though ignored, remain in the current 2010 Authorization).
Although neither SEI nor the VSE succeeded in their principal objectives of sending people beyond low Earth orbit, they did manage to greatly advance our understanding of just what is at stake. In the case of the former, a variety of people from the defense and civil space sectors worked together on SEI, creating networks that advanced an outbound agenda. One accomplishment was the Clementine mission, a joint effort by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NASA. Flying in 1994, Clementine successfully mapped the entire Moon in eleven spectral bands, mapping its mineral composition in detail. Clementine made the first global topographic map of that body and most significantly, found evidence for the presence of water ice in the dark areas near the south pole of the Moon. The success of Clementine led to the Lunar Prospector mission, a robotic orbiter flown under NASA’s Discovery program, that both confirmed the excess hydrogen at the poles of the Moon and globally mapped the Moon’s chemical composition.
The intriguing results from Clementine and Lunar Prospector resulted in an international fleet of six spacecraft being sent to the Moon in the past decade, adding to our knowledge of the processes, history and potential utility of that body. From this exploration, we now know that the Moon contains millions of tons of harvestable water. We possess detailed maps of lunar physical and compositional properties. In short, we now know that the Moon is habitable and is both an appropriate near-term destination for people and a unique enabling asset for future spaceflight within and beyond the Earth-Moon system.
Now, just as we find the Moon to be an attractive destination, we shrink away from the challenge, watching as others blaze trails we once traveled. We willingly accept the pablum to not fret over new space powers who do not cancel their programs. We are told they have not yet done all that we have and that we still carry the mantle of the world’s leading space power. This is not logical. Similar thoughts once prevailed in Portugal, during an earlier age of exploration. One doesn’t assume or retain the mantle of leadership by fiat or declaration – it must be earned and exercised. Perhaps the real issue is not whether NASA is up to the task but rather, whether we as Americans are blind to the truth, unable to recognize that by having our nation withdraw from this arena, that we are retreating from our position, thereby ceding our prosperity, leadership and greatness to other nations who do have the will and the vision to press forward.
June 19, 2012
With the weekend launch of the latest Shenzhou spacecraft and its successful rendezvous and docking with an orbiting space station, world attention is once again focused on China’s flourishing space program. Although China’s human spaceflight efforts currently focus on low Earth orbit, in recent years they have sent two robotic orbital spacecraft to the Moon and have announced their intentions for a lunar lander/rover mission. These efforts lead many in the west to speculate that a presence on the Moon is a likely and realistic goal for China’s space future. In terms of the possible purpose for such lunar efforts, things are little more vague. Most assume that China will go to the Moon for reasons similar to the geopolitical motives that impelled America to undertake the Apollo missions. While some actually welcome China’s aspirations to conquer the Moon, other space observers smirk at their apparent willingness to (as they characterize it) “waste billions of dollars to repeat what America did thirty years ago.” Others understand why China aims for the Moon.
The United States currently has no strategic space goal. Many in the U.S. space community argue that the development of commercial launch services through federal subsidies is a goal. To smooth the path for this approach, calls for consensus have been made by some New Space advocates. Funding to support the research and development costs of these new commercial services would come by excising chunks of the rapidly dwindling NASA budget. “Flat or declining” now describes the American civil space program budget and regularly reaching LEO to supply ISS has become our “new” vision.
In contrast, China is conducting an incremental, step-wise effort to gradually but inexorably extend their reach and influence in space, first into low Earth orbit and then into cislunar space and beyond. Their approach uses a variety of hardware derived from existing systems while adding new capabilities over time. China appears to be focused and following clear, long-range goals in space. Because we do not look ahead on timescales of 20-30 years (accustomed instead to a 5-10 year timeframe), we have no long-range strategy to guide what we build or a plan for securing any long-term space goals.
Certainly wide-ranging concerns propel China’s push for human space access, some that can be envisioned now and some that cannot. But fundamentally, they have accepted the proposition that freedom of space in the 21st century is equivalent to the principle of freedom of the seas that governed 19th and 20th century geopolitics. In short, such a principle comprises the ability to project power and to protect national interests whenever and wherever China might be confronted within the strategic theater in question, in this case, the domain of cislunar space.
I have written before on the economic, strategic and scientific value of cislunar space, the zone in which virtually all of our space assets and satellites reside. China intends to preserve her freedom of action by creating a spaceflight capability that can access and use any location of cislunar space, up to and including the lunar surface. To build a sustainable space program using incremental, cumulative steps, it makes no sense to “leapfrog” over (or to ignore) the intermediate locations from which space faring capability and utility can be demonstrated, established and used.
Much of the published speculation on China’s interest in the Moon focuses on mining the Moon for the nuclear fusion fuel 3He or substances found on the lunar surface, such as titanium or rare earth elements. In fact, one of the simplest substances found on the Moon has enormous value in space – water. Water can be used to support human life, as a medium of energy storage, and as rocket propellant. Water is the currency of spaceflight and one of the most valuable, usable substances we could obtain from any extraterrestrial object.
If I wanted to establish a secure foothold for my country in cislunar space, I would secure the territory near the poles of the Moon. We know from the results of several recent probes that the lunar poles contain billions of tons of water, much of it chemically unbound as ice, a particularly easy form to harvest, concentrate and use. Material and energy resources, concentrated together in a compact location are assets of immense economic and strategic value. Wars have been waged over less.
International treaty prohibits claims of extraterrestrial territory by national entities. But treaties are “gentlemen’s agreements” and sometimes nations do not behave like gentlemen. There is no mechanism to enforce the 1967 Outer Space Treaty except for a given country’s unwillingness to undergo international opprobrium. Moreover, a country can withdraw from the treaty at will. China tends to do what it wants to do, unless the economic or political price is perceived to be too high. The potential of the Moon and cislunar space may outweigh their sense of geopolitical risk or concern about international ostracism.
What does this mean for the United States? To listen to many in the space press, nothing. A quick yawn and then back to propagandizing for more federal dollars to be passed on to new space companies. But ultimately, it could mean that their libertarian dreams of a profit-making space frontier will never come to pass. If free market capitalism and democratic political institutions are to have a future in the new frontier of space, entities, investors and consumers who share these values must secure a notable presence. If the United States has a vigorous civil space program that creates a permanent presence there, such a system may have a chance to take root. Conversely, our absence is almost a guarantee that our system and values will not be the guiding paradigm on the new frontier.
For many observers, an absent America (or with a mere supporting role) would be acceptable. They believe America is what’s wrong with the world and that it’s high time that we step aside (in their opinion to one of subservience and irrelevance – certainly not one of power projection or as an economic engine and technology driver). Parties (and countries) that lead make the rules. While China has a great industrial base and a large, seemingly market-based economic system, it is actually a system of big government corporatism, where central planners decide which industries shall be allowed to grow and in what direction – capitalism, under total governmental control.
China is a rapidly advancing technically and is one of our largest trading partners, attributes beneficial in relationships between equals. Historically, once a shift occurs in the status of partners, relationships change. Because China’s influence in the world is growing, it is vital that we discuss and weigh these facts. Our national economic and security interests cannot be jeopardized by a misguided rush to hand our space future over to companies who are in the imagining stage of what China just accomplished this weekend.
June 5, 2012
Where does the Moon fit into plans for future human space exploration? From reading the space media, you might get the idea that the very notion is dead and buried, killed by President Obama’s casual dismissal of the idea in a speech over two years ago at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, followed this year by Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks on the Moon during the Republican primaries. Nevertheless, many in the international community (and in the United States) are keeping the lunar flame alive for a variety of reasons, not the least among them being that it is understood that politicians aren’t rocket scientists – nor should we expect them to be.
The Global Exploration Conference (GLEX) held last month in Washington DC was remarkable for the fact that most of our international space partners are proceeding with plans for lunar return as though its abandonment had never occurred. The Russians were particularly eager to express their desire to establish capability on the Moon at the meeting, while in recent months strong interest in permanent lunar return has been expressed by the Europeans, Canada, India, Japan and of course, China. Moreover, unlike many within our own national space agency, the world sees the Moon not simply as a box to be checked-off on the way to Mars but as the enabling asset for space exploration. As Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos put it, “It’s a new Moon,” pointing out that the recently confirmed discovery of water at the poles of the Moon enables sustainable, permanent habitation of that body and the creation of new capabilities for voyages to the planets.
Our international space partners believe that spaceflight beyond LEO should entail incremental steps that will gradually extend reach and capability. Once such a paradigm is adopted, expensive designer missions to plant a flag or do a “touch-and-go” at an asteroid are seen as having limited value and making no economic sense. On the other hand, the gradual expansion beyond LEO using nearby assets builds a permanent, lasting space faring capability. The Moon fits into such a scheme by virtue of both its proximity and usefulness. In the absence of some technical miracle, such as the discovery of new physics that fundamentally change the nature of spaceflight, we are wedded to rocket technology for the foreseeable future. The rocket equation dictates that it will remain difficult and expensive to reach space and operate there. Given such problems, some now recognize and conclude that the Moon offers provisioning capability and for this reason and many others, is a desirable destination and near-term goal.
Our pioneering (and current) model of space access requires launching everything from Earth’s surface, taking months to complete a mission, yet gathering minimal information (due to limited time in the vicinity of its designated target) and leaving no lasting or reusable infrastructure in space. This template guarantees that human spaceflights will be infrequent, expensive and subject to abrupt cancellation due to political whims. If one views the civil space program primarily as an annoying expenditure whose ambitions must be constrained by making a previously small portion of the program (such as “commercial” launch services) the raison d’être of the entire effort and deferring any real goals to an indefinite and nebulous future, our current path might seem completely reasonable. However, it appears that the international community believes that space is a real theater of human endeavor and their goal is to make it part of their domain and utility – until recently, also a goal of the American space program. Perhaps it still is.
Despite common perception, the Moon has not been officially abandoned as a goal for the United States space program. The current NASA Authorization Act of 2010 lays out the goals and approaches to be followed by the agency in executing its mission. The Findings by the Congress (section 301) outlines the rationale and goals of the space agency’s human exploration efforts. As I have written previously, in the seven points dealing with future agency activities, cislunar space is mentioned in four and the lunar surface is called out twice as destinations. Development of the ability to use the in situ resources of space to create infrastructure is specifically cited in Sec. 301a (4). The entire section 301 is worth a careful reading. It calls for a program that uses a gradual, incremental approach to the extension of human reach in space beyond LEO, specifically specifying both commercial and international participation. There is nothing in the current law that is at odds with the plans and desires of the international community as expressed at the recent GLEX meeting. The only place one reads about the Moon being abandoned as a national goal for America is in the press and such cases, it is always in the context of a single off-hand remark in one Presidential speech.
From the perspective of two years later, that off-hand remark sounds increasingly ill thought-out and hollow. Given its context in the speech, the statement seems to derive from the idea that lunar return must perforce be a repeat of the Apollo experience of 30 years ago. NASA itself has fed this idea, depicting the return to the Moon as the equivalent of a Gemini program within the Apollo-to-Mars fixation of many in the agency. In their 2006 preliminary plans for lunar return, NASA started out properly by describing the development of an outpost at one of the poles of the Moon and emphasizing human presence and development, but over the next few years architectural studies increasingly drifted away from an outpost and towards the sortie concept, in which we would stage (entirely from Earth) and execute one-off missions to sites of scientific interest all over the Moon for visits of limited duration. Such an exploration approach dissipates assets and thus increases costs and reduces surface capability and infrastructure. It was this exploratory approach to lunar return that the Augustine committee evaluated and declared to be “unaffordable,” not the concept of building a centralized outpost that could support ISRU and space development (an approach that the committee did not even consider).
President Obama signed the NASA Authorization bill of 2010 – a bill crafted when his party controlled Congress – and the findings presented in that bill are now law. So even though the agency and most of the media seem to be blissfully unaware of it, NASA has been charged by Congress to develop space systems capable of conducting missions to and throughout cislunar space, including to the lunar surface. Our international partners agree with this intended direction, convinced that the Moon is the appropriate next destination for humans in space.
NASA’s reluctance to go in this direction, even while other nations are making plans, forfeits the opportunity for our international leadership in space. Our space program has to demonstrate the feasibility of using lunar resources to secure us a place as participants and entrepreneurs in the vast economic future of space.
May 15, 2012
If things go according to plan Saturday, the world will witness SpaceX launch its first Dragon cargo supply mission to the International Space Station. As this flight has been heralded as the dawn of a new age in spaceflight – a paradigm shift in the way the spaceflight is approached – it is appropriate to step back for some reflection and perspective on what this flight may or may not represent. As noted by many, this particular cargo flight has a lot riding on it – with overarching concern for success (even if a bit unfair), created in part both by vociferous advocacy and excessive public pronouncements.
1. A successful or unsuccessful result from this flight neither confirms nor negates the value and/or viability of commercial spaceflight.
This proposition should be obvious. Launch to orbit is an inherently difficult and risky endeavor. Even launch vehicles with long histories of reliable flight fail, sometimes with distressing frequency. We tend to think that space access should be routine but that appearance is deceiving; spaceflight is never routine, simply because orbital flight is possible only on the very edge of our capability. Think of it as carrying a heavy load of luggage while ice skating – you may know how to do it and you may even pull it off successfully a number of times, but if you start taking it for granted, a fall on the posterior is quite likely (with this eventuality more probable in the early stages of the endeavor).
Looked at in another way, a successful mission does not “prove” the case for commercial human spaceflight (the case for commercial unmanned space launch has long since been proven) nor does it negate its feasibility. The real issue with commercial human spaceflight is the existence of a market. Right now, such a market does not exist. New Space advocates have unlimited faith that one will emerge, but hope is not a business plan. It will take years of successful commercial launches (and safe returns) for the creation of a genuine commercial market. The uncertainties in the future legal status of commercial human spaceflight is enough to give one pause – contemplate the likely consequences following the first fatal accident in a commercial human spaceflight, after the ambulance chasers get their teeth into the flesh of every company who ever had anything whatsoever to do with the flight.
2. The creation of SpaceX capability is not “commercial” in the sense that we in the capitalist United States of America understand it. Likewise, a government space program is not “socialism.”
The word commercial has been re-branded. Previously, in most entrepreneurs’ way of thinking, “commercial” enterprise meant that a person or group drew up a business plan, raised private capital and shouldered the financial risk in an attempt to make a profit by providing a product or service. The understanding of the term “commercial space” has been stretched to encompass a business plan where a start-up company requests (and expects) government subsidies on their promise of future delivery of a product and/or service. Because it’s not “run” by the government, this form of government-sponsored crony capitalism is now deemed “commercial.” Financial tweaking is not how most would understand or define a new paradigm in space travel.
Typically during the last 50 years of our federal civil space program, we were working toward some clearly articulated, reachable (that adjective is important) goal on some kind of timetable. Because spaceflight, particularly the manned variety, was considered to be dangerous and technically cutting edge, the program was more of an engineering research program than the deployment of an operational transportation system. Such R&D has important national security and economic ramifications and as such, fits perfectly under the constitutional requirement for the federal government to provide for the common defense and promote economic development. If that’s “socialism,” then America has been a socialist country from its founding.
3. True commercial space firms exist, but they are pursuing their goals quietly and generally without excessive hype. They do not rely on government money to support their R&D costs.
Burt Rutan developed Space Ship One for Paul Allen in order to win the Ansari X-Prize (and did) and is currently developing a new spacecraft for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceline. Robert Bigelow’s company took a discarded NASA design for inflatable spacecraft and is developing a future commercial space station, available for sale of lease (it’s the transportation problem to and from his station that’s holding him back.) None of these efforts are taking the King’s shilling – they are developing hardware and capability themselves. It’s interesting that unlike some New Space firms, they tend to make fewer public pronouncements and the ones they do make are both substantive and realistic (you tend to operate that way when you’re risking your own nickel).
4. The process of contracting with “commercial” firms to carry payloads into orbit is not a space policy.
This last item is obvious, but only if you’re not getting your news exclusively from the space media. Even if SpaceX is completely successful, all we will have done is to add another player to the existing roster of supply vehicles that enable the occupation and use of the ISS. Since discarding the Vision for Space Exploration over two years ago, we have no long-term goal or strategic direction for our civil space program. The pre-existing Commercial Crew and Cargo Program has been billed as a “new direction” but it is simply a utilitarian effort to keep an existing program going, not a new path or direction to follow. Mirages of human missions to asteroids and following a “flexible path” will produce pointless viewgraph engineering – and no missions getting off the ground. At least with the VSE, the nation knew where, when and why we were going.
Even as we hope for a successful SpaceX launch and return, it is vital that America recognize that our government has no space policy or strategic direction – commercial or otherwise. From both a security and an economic perspective, this is a dangerous situation for our nation.
May 1, 2012
There’s quite a buzz in space policy circles over the recent announcement of the creation of a new company that intends to survey, study and mine near Earth asteroids (NEAs). Given my previous advocacy regarding the desirability of learning how to extract and use off-planet resources, many people have asked me to weigh in with my opinion of their proposed business plan. I’d like to frame my remarks around Michael Listner’s recent piece on the possible legal issues involved in the plan as he has illuminated an interesting angle on the project.
The roll-out of the business plan of Planetary Resources Inc. made a big media splash, as is typical for many of these “New Space” private operations. Close examination reveals the outline of a plan, but the technical details are rather fuzzy. Given that no business should reveal too much detail about their plans lest they lose their competitive advantage, the company’s reticence is not too surprising. To summarize it in broad terms, the plan is to launch a space-based telescope, dedicated to identifying candidate NEAs; at least initially, the main interest seems to be metal asteroids (presumably those rich in metallic elements of economic value, including gold and platinum) and water-bearing asteroids. The former would have significant economic value in terrestrial markets, providing the possibility of high, near-term payback for investors. The latter would have value for future in-space operations and could be sold to both national governments and to the private sector, presuming that such markets develop.
The next step involves sending robotic prospectors to the best candidate bodies to survey them, determine their physical, chemical and mineralogical make up, and identify the best targets for resource extraction. The last step involves snagging a small asteroid (possibly several tons in total mass) and tow it back to cislunar space where Earth-based, teleoperated robotic machines can process and refine the material for sale. This last step contains the most open questions. Although such a mission can be envisioned in principle, it is technically out of reach at the present time. However, I envision no particular show stoppers here – practical details of the material processing and handling these materials in microgravity are the biggest unknowns, but even these issues can be addressed and mitigated before any NEA is retrieved through the execution of some carefully designed experiments in low Earth orbit.
But then what? This – as always is the case when human endeavors begin in earnest – is where the lawyers come in.
Listner’s article suggests that the proposed activity of capturing and processing an asteroid falls outside the current bounds of any outer space legal regime. He recalls that the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (to which the United States is a signatory) prohibits claims of national sovereignty over extraterrestrial objects. Space mining companies will be subject to the laws of the nation in which they are incorporated and thus, bound to the terms of any international treaty that nation has ratified. While national ownership of outer space assets is prohibited by the 1967 treaty, the treaty is silent on private ownership. Thus, the treaty is open to interpretation and subject to the philosophical and economic predilections of the parties involved. One thing is certain however – if anyone ever does this, they are guaranteed to face protracted litigation that will no doubt take years (and many billable hours) to wind its way through the courts.
Listner goes on to describe issues with liability, mostly in relation to possible damages caused by future space operations or to existing space-based assets. However, other more alarming scenarios are possible (e.g., suppose a retrieved NEA collides with the Earth during its arrival in cislunar space?) Although no specific conclusions are drawn, the foreshadowing is a prerequisite for private companies to post a surety bond, one potentially of enormous scale. If nothing else, such a requirement would certainly put a crimp in many new commercialization plans.
The infamous (at least in space circles) Moon Treaty is the last legal issue discussed by Listner. In brief, this treaty prohibits private ownership of space bodies and demands that any profits from resource extraction from these bodies be “distributed” amongst the nations of the world. This document was submitted to the United States Senate in 1980 for ratification and was defeated, thanks to a vigorous educational campaign by the L-5 Society. Thus, thirty-two years ago, the United States (and also other major space faring nations, including Russia and China) rejected the Moon Treaty. However, from the standpoint of most lawyers, the treaty has been ratified by 17 nations, giving it the full force of international law. Considering the multinational make-up of many companies and that their corporate assets can be frozen or in some extreme cases seized (sometimes for entirely specious or arbitrary reasons), the legal status of the use and ownership of extracted space resources must be considered seriously.
Where does this legal confusion leave the prospects for the economic development of the Solar System? That is unclear at the moment. In broad terms, business does not like legal uncertainty to a degree usually in direct proportion to the amount of money involved. For both technical and legal reasons, it is highly unlikely that there will be a “gold rush in space.” The technical issues are substantial (particularly for the Planetary Resources Inc. plan) but the legal ones are no less so. In part, this is why I favor making the determination of how to extract and use off-planet resources a central goal of the American civil space program. Note well: I do not say that we should turn NASA into a space mining company. Rather, the role of government is to undertake technically risky ventures with the aim of determining how difficult they might be and to settle any thorny legal issues that may arise. Questions of international law can only be addressed and settled by national governments – through agreements, treaties, new law and if need be, by stronger actions. No private sector corporation has this inherent ability – only national governments can resolve these issues. If such issues are resolved, the private sector can then successfully proceed and grow their businesses and governments will profit too.
I applaud both the vision and the chutzpah of Planetary Resources Inc. For now, their plan to launch and operate a space-based telescope to map asteroids and locate promising prospects is a good start. They may even manage to eventually send a probe of two for a close-up examination of a couple of NEAs. As for the last piece of their plan, at this writing, color me skeptical.
* Henry VI Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2. Yes, I am aware that lawyers claim that this phrase is taken out of context (i.e., it is actually an ironic assertion that if one wants a poorly run, bad society, eliminate the rule of law), but it is simply too good not to use here.
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