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« A Touch Of Toxin | Main | Eyes Bigger Than His Mouth »

Space Cowboys

Former astronaut and current space activist Phil Chapman has a long and depressing (but largely accurate) history and assessment of our "manned space program" over at Space Daily today.

Fortunately, he also has some policy prescriptions. They involve, among other things, taking it away from NASA, which in his words, has thoroughly "bungled it." I think he's right.

He makes one other point that I've been meaning to post on.

...Apollo existed because Jack Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev chose to make space a principal arena for competition between the superpowers. The purposes of the program were to overcome the perceived Soviet lead in space, and to foreclose the possibility that the USSR would reach the Moon first and claim it as Soviet territory. No Congress was willing to spend more than the minimum needed to achieve those objectives.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 relieved concerns about Soviet hegemony by banning weapons and territorial claims on the Moon. This allowed Congress to respond to Lyndon Johnson's simultaneous expansion of social programs and the war in VietNam by slashing funding for NASA. As shown in Figure 1, the budget peaked in 1966, and then fell precipitously.

This is one of many reasons to withdraw from the OST. Like the ABM Treaty, it's a relic of the Cold War, and the collectivist mind set in vogue in the decolonializing fifties and sixties.

There are at least three good reasons to make it null and void.

1) The one listed above--it destroys any possibility of international competition by banning sovereignty, (which was in fact one of the reasons that we entered into it--it did indeed allow us to spend less money on space, which was what Congress wanted).

2) It discourages private property rights, due to the lack of sovereignty, because it's not clear how a government would defend the property rights of its citizens absent it. This in turn significantly reduces incentives for private investment.

3) It places a heavy liability burden on the governments of its signatories, which is one of the reasons that we have such an onerous regulatory process for space launch.

OK, there's a fourth reason, perhaps the best one--it would really cheese off the French.

It has no explicit recognition of individuals or private corporations, or provisions for their activities--it is written as though only governments are actors in space (largely because at the time it was written, that was the case, and few could imagine any other possibilities).

So, as long as, "cowboy like," we're undoing the damage of other treaties, I propose that we consider getting out from under this one as well, and start negotiating a rational replacement.

It's been holding us back in space for decades, and it's long past time to consign it, along with the socialist impulses from which it's derived, to the dustbin of history.

[Update at 8:38 AM PDT]

Ken Silber points out a column he wrote on this subject in Reason five years ago, which I'd read, but had forgotten.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 30, 2003 07:54 AM
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If we abrogate the Outer Space Treaty, should it be U.S. policy to send a human to the moon (before, say, China does) in order to establish U.S. sovereignty? If China gets there first, do we recognize its sovereignty claim? Do we declare retroactive sovereignty based on Apollo?

I agree that the OST has caused problems, but just scrapping it seems problematical too.

There's always the possibility of modifying it to allow property rights claims while holding sovereignty claims in abeyance. I tried sketching out something along those lines a few years ago at

Posted by Ken Silber at May 30, 2003 08:17 AM

Well, I suppose we could declare sovereignty based on the fact that we already went, but I'm not trying to stir up an international hornet's nest (at least any more than the treaty withdrawal would do). I think that we should make sovereignty claims on a similar basis to the Mining Act of 1879--if you improve the property, you own it, and that should be the principle of any follow-on treaty.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 30, 2003 08:32 AM

> I think that we should make sovereignty claims on a similar basis to the Mining Act of 1879--if you improve the property, you own it, and that should be the principle of any follow-on treaty.

Good idea, except the idiotarians have a different definition of "improve".

In fact, they seem to think that if you improve something that you own, they're entitled to take it.

Posted by Andy Freeman at May 30, 2003 08:39 AM

Mr. Silber above touched tangentially on something I'd like to see Rand address in depth: China on the moon. I just saw a Washington Times article viewing in alarm the idea that China is going for the moon in its manned space program, and might well pull off a landing in a relative few years, with the idea of establishing a permanent presence. (Thus bringing up the questions of sovereignity that are the topic of this particular thread.) Now, as of this date, China has not put a manned vehicle into orbit, or launched an unmanned vehicle to the moon. They have a space program working towards those ends, apparently based on Soviet designs, but as yet no accomplished missions under their belt. Can China reasonably expect to merrily build on American and Russian experience in space, gained at a high cost over 40+ years of trial and error, and vault straight to the moon, or is it in for a steep learning curve of its own? (Launchpad disasters, explosions in space, reentry break-ups, and dead astronauts...) I for one would welcome Chinese activity in space, if only to motivate our own Congress with the perception of a new space race. And the talk was that Japan and India might have ideas of their own for getting involved. But I can't see that it would be the cakewalk for the Chinese that the Times writer seemed to think, and there would be time for the US to notice and marshall its own resources if it looked like the Chinese were going to make a grab for the moon.

Posted by Dwight Decker at May 30, 2003 09:13 AM

I know that many wish to believe that the Chinese are going to make great strides in space, and that this will cause us to pick up the pace ourselves. I don't think so. Their program is derivative, and expensive, and won't lead to anything significant for a long time. I'm quite confident that we'll have extensive private and military activities in orbit before the Chinese accomplish much.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 30, 2003 09:48 AM

I'm a strong advocate of personal private property in space, but really haven't a clue how it could come about (even after reading some excellent postings on the subject.)

Corporate mining claims would seem to be the most direct route, but of course that's not quite the same as individual private ownership.

Fundamentally, property rights only exist to the extent that the claim to title can be defended (legally or by force.) Right now, I can claim title to anything at all with a virtual certainty that nothing much can be done to deny my claim. (So I'm claiming one square kilometer on the equator of Mars right now just to get my claim in early. See, I'm not greedy! ;-)

But seriously, if we believe that government should operate with the consent of the governed then it's up to anyone that can get there to determine sovereignty. Depending on how things develop perhaps the Mining Act of 1879 would be a good working template. I just don't like the idea that some government is required to give legitimacy of title to land that isn't part of that nation to begin with.

Perhaps property rights could be traded on some sort of futures market? What is the minimum of governmental support that could make that happen?

Hmmm... the 'Country of Ken' has a nice ring to it, don't ya think?

Posted by at May 30, 2003 02:10 PM

Thing about real estate is, it isn't a commodity, it's finite and non-renewable, so without a sovereign authority of some kind to legitimize ownership, squatters' rights is all you've got.

The experience of pre-territorial Alaska (1867-1912) might be a worthwhile candidate for bad example. Until Congress organized a territorial government, Alaska had no indigenous authority to legitimize land claims, and everyone living up there was in effect a squatter. Miners' courts were about all there was to back up a land claim, but the U.S. Government could have voided them all at any time. Still, having a miners' militia to protect you wasn't a bad substitute for a U.S. Marshal given there weren't any Marshals around...

I don't know all the specifics, but I believe one of the first things the Territory probably did was to confer title on most of the squatters who had improved on their holdings.

Posted by Kevin McGehee at May 30, 2003 02:26 PM

By today's standards, the Apollo program is almost laughably primative. If the funding was there, we could have another manned mission to the Moon mobilized withing two years.

Posted by Kevin L. Connors at May 30, 2003 05:08 PM

Just to avoid any confusion, I should point out I didn't publish the anonymous entry above that mentions 'the country of Ken.' If there's one thing I don't want, it's a place called the country of Ken.

Posted by Ken Silber at May 31, 2003 04:30 AM

You guys didn't spend enough of your youth watching John Wayne movies. Water rights were always the source of conflict between the good guys and the bad guys. If the PRC establishes a "scientific" base at Aitken crater and monopolize all the water that is supposedly in that area. They own the Moon without breaking the outer space treaty. It's a scientific base after all. You want some water? We'll be happy to sell it to you. You'll just have to pay the cost of our production. You think thats too high? We've spent a lot of money getting here. You want to put a base next to ours and mine also. Accidents happen during construction. Gee I'm developing a movie script! Somebody call Dream Works.

Posted by Rod Kendrick at June 1, 2003 01:30 PM

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