The Case for Space Cowboys

Published September 18, 2002


British astronomer Sir Martin Rees doesn’t want to see merchant adventurers in outer space:

"If they were governmental or international (expeditions), Antarctic-style restraint might be feasible. On the other hand, if the explorers were privately funded adventurers of free-enterprise, even anarchic disposition, the Wild West model would be more likely to prevail," he said.

He says that like it’s a bad thing. Sorry, Sir Martin: it’s already happened, as the United States government has approved a commercially oriented Moon mission planned by a company called TransOrbital. TransOrbital’s spacecraft will fly to the moon, returning high-resolution maps and HDTV images to paying viewers, and delivering paid-for cargo (a business card will cost $2,500) to the lunar surface.

To Americans, this seems like a good thing. Something new and exciting is happening, people are getting something that they want -- even if they didn’t realize that they wanted it until someone decided to make it available -- and someone else stands to make money. What’s to complain about?

From another perspective, a lot. To Americans, these new opportunities look like, well, opportunities. To others they look like problems. If there’s new money to be made, some people will make it, which will be threatening to the self-esteem of those who don’t. All that activity stirs things up. Those who are happy with things as they are will be forced to change, or to be left behind by other, less worthy, people.

To those threatened by change, the Antarctic model for space looks good. By treaty, no nation can claim sovereign rights in Antarctica, and by gentleman’s agreement the continent has been limited to scientists and a very few eco-tourists.

This isn’t such a terrible idea -- for Antarctica. Many nations have overlapping claims -- now suspended by the Antarctic Treaty -- that could lead to war if Antarctica were open to development. And given Antarctica’s perhaps-pivotal role in global climate, a go-slow attitude there may make sense.

Space is a different ballgame altogether. The Moon and Mars play no role in the Earth’s climate (beyond, in the Moon’s case, producing tides). And there are no overlapping national claims -- to the contrary, claims of national sovereignty in outer space are prohibited by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But although the Outer Space Treaty prevents nations from claiming outer space, it says nothing to prohibit private entities from operating in outer space, even on a for-profit basis.

Anti-capitalists in the Third World did attempt to block private enterprise in outer space via the 1979 Moon Treaty, but that treaty was a dismal failure, with essentially every spacefaring nation declining to join it. And it’s the view of nearly all scholars of space law that private enterprise, and private property rights in outer space, neither of which require national sovereignty, are legal under international law.

For decades these issues were of mostly academic interest, since no private companies were interested in commercial space activity beyond communications satellites anyway. But now, with a growing interest in moneymaking ventures in space (already an $82 billion industry in 2002) ranging from tourism to asteroid mining, and with the discovery of water ice on the Moon and Mars that could make exploration and colonization far more practical, these issues are going to come up.

The question is, will our model be Antarctica? Or the "wild west?" I think we’ve already seen the answer.

And I think that’s a good thing, not a bad one. Contrary to the images thrown about by Euro-critics, the American West was a place in which crimes against person and property were comparatively rare, consensual combat excepted. It was a place that was open to all sorts of new projects that made a lot of people rich, gave a lot of people broader horizons, and loosened the grip of bureaucrats, authority figures, and professional tastemakers on society as a whole. Hmm. Maybe that’s what bothers Sir Martin.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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