A Twinkle of Hope

Obama has moved space policy in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.

(Page 3 of 3)

Buying a Piece of the Moon 

At the heart of Western prosperity, particularly in the Anglosphere during the last few centuries, lie clear and freely transferable property rights, protected under the rule of law. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has written, property rights are a key difference between the development of British America (the U.S., Canada, and to a lesser extent Belize) and Latin America. In his 2000 book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, De Soto describes the essential (if not sufficient) role that the official recording of property ownership plays in allowing individuals and corporations to borrow capital and grow wealth. Absent legally recognized rights to buy, own, and sell titled property, the act of getting a loan to improve, mine, drill, or otherwise generate profit from that property becomes difficult, if not impossible. This availability of capital is the sine qua non of wealth creation, and it largely explains why the West is rich and others (particularly in the Third World) are poor. 

Many people believe that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibited claims of national sovereignty on other terrestrial bodies, therefore denied private property in space. But this isn’t true. Although the Soviets wanted the treaty to be explicit in banning private property, the Johnson administration fought hard to keep that from happening. While states themselves are forbidden from owning space property, there is no language in the treaty preventing the U.S. or other governments from recognizing and legally recording claims by private citizens (although physically defending them might be another matter). The 1979 Moon Treaty does outlaw private property there, but it has not been ratified by the United States or any other spacefaring nation. 

Accordingly, the nonprofit Space Settlement Institute is championing a bill called the Space Settlement Prize Act, perhaps more appropriately titled the Space Homesteading Act. As institute founder Alan Wasser explains on the Space Settlement Initiative’s website: “The proposed legislation would commit the U.S. to granting that recognition [of property rights in space] if those who have established settlements meet specified conditions, such as offering to sell passage on their ships to anyone willing to pay a fair price. Entrepreneurs could use that promise of U.S. recognition to help raise the venture capital to develop the ships needed to make the claim.” 

An outfit calling itself the Lunar Embassy has been selling deeds to plots of land on the moon for years; the going rate is currently about $20 an acre. But because those claims aren’t legally recognized, they are little more than amusing novelty items. Official U.S. government recognition could change that and, as Wasser points out, create a real market for deeds. That market, in turn, could generate billions in venture capital for land claims on the moon, asteroids, and other planets. A lively trade in lunar property would be a useful repudiation of the Moon Treaty, minimizing the power of that document to shape customary international law. Perhaps most important, recognition of lunar property rights would make it clear that the U.S. government wants to encourage the private settlement of space.

Would it be possible to make these policy changes? Not in this Congress, and probably not with this president. Real change can only come under new leaders, both on the Hill and in the White House, who actually care about civil space policy as something other than a source of national prestige or high-tech welfare. Space must be viewed not as a program, or as a pristine preserve for scientists, but as a resource-rich frontier for the expansion of humanity and freedom, as Europeans saw the Americas half a millennium ago. Moving toward a new policy requires recognizing that Apollo is finished and that neither the Apollo program nor any government 10-year plan was ever going to be the key to unlocking the space frontier. 

Half a century after the first human spaceflight, Washington must finally recognize that the same principles that opened the American frontier—minimal regulation, entrepreneurship, free markets, private property, and rugged individualism—apply equally to the final one.

Rand Simberg is a consultant in space business and technology and adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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  • Tim||

    " A lively trade in lunar property " which lead to the economic collapse of 2034...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    We achieved John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him to Earth before the decade was done, but in doing so we created a space...monster.

    And I for one welcome our new space monster overlord.

  • Auric Demonocles||


    "I still have a trick or two up my sleeve. Watch as I fire upwards through our own shield! "

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "Increase speed, drop down and reverse direction!"

  • Auric Demonocles||

    "I could never get the last one! My brother always got it for me!"

  • ||

    Give me a Rush mix tape and a bottle of Shasta!

  • ||

    "Good evening, ignorant pigs. Put down your crack pipes and your beer bongs and pay attention, as I sign a historic peace accord with ambassador Kong of planet Nintendo 64."

  • "Furious" Styles||

    OT: http://tinyurl.com/87tcvuv

    "OK, 'fess up — some of you know that I thoroughly detest libertarianism, that reactionary political movement that seeks to elevate greed and selfishness as a ruling principle, and I suspect one of you got me a subscription to Reason magazine a few months ago, just to taunt me. If your goal was to persuade me to come over to the side of unbridled anti-social self-centeredness, you failed. The issue comes, I glance through it, find a few little bits and pieces I can agree with, but because they're all imbedded in this thick tarry fecal sludge of libertarianism, I end up throwing the whole thing away in disgust."

  • Tman||

    Cool story bro.

  • ||

    Maybe you should start a newsletter.

  • Donna Noeit||


  • tarry fecal sludge||

    Cool band name bro.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I suspect one of you got me a subscription to Reason magazine a few months ago, just to taunt me.

    Just a ploy to get you on all of those other strange snail-mail marketing lists.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    PZ Myers is one of those people who thinks he's Smarttm because he learnt a lot about squids and got a few initials after his name, thus he feels qualified to bloviate about everything and anything.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Make that "Smart(tm)"

  • ||

    How about Smart™?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I tried the tag but I guess I fucked it up.

  • Teh rael MNG||

    because he learnt a lot about squids and got a few initials after his name, thus he feels qualified to bloviate about everything and anything

    That does make him more qualified, you ignorant buffoon!

  • ||

    Then get thee self over to Huffington Post righ away and hang out with the other illiterate fools that believe the government should provide everything for you.

    vejo você mais tarde, espero que nunca, idiota

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Three pages on what's wrong with the U.S. human spaceflight program? The problem is that it exists! Human space flight, as many commenters have pointed out in response to Reason's "other" space flight article today, is massively impracticable. The magic of the marketplace doesn't give us everything we want. Where's my jet pack? Where's my anti-aging pill? My Leo DiCaprio look-alike pill? My flawless replica of Angelina Jolie robot? Why aren't these products on the market? Are you telling me there's no demand?

  • ||

    Why don't you shut the fuck up Vannemen. There have been humans in space for 50 years now. It is hardly impractical. And there is a way that impractical things become practical, it is called technological advance.

    You really are the biggest douchebag ever to post on Reason. Don't you have a new Sherlock Holmes story to write or something?

  • Bingo||

    I dunno John, there are good reasons to be skeptical about space travel in general.

    Great article from sci-fi author Charles Stross about the impracticality of it: http://www.antipope.org/charli.....redux.html

    The moon is about 1.3 light seconds away. If we want to go panning the (metaphorical) rivers for gold, we'd do better to send teleoperator-controlled robots; it's close enough that we can control them directly, and far enough away that the cost of transporting food and creature comforts for human explorers is astronomical. There probably are niches for human workers on a moon base, but only until our robot technologies are somewhat more mature than they are today; Mission Control would be a lot happier with a pair of hands and a high-def camera that doesn't talk back and doesn't need to go to the toilet or take naps.

    When we look at the rest of the solar system, the picture is even bleaker. Mars is ... well, the phrase "tourist resort" springs to mind, and is promptly filed in the same corner as "Gobi desert". As Bruce Sterling has puts it: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach." In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — our robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.
  • ||

    It is a long ways away. But I would never write it off as totally impractical. At some point in time man will do it. Man has to. The earth only has so many years left. Of course, the good news is we have a few billion years to figure it out.

    Maybe from a Christian perspective, God will return and end the earth before we figure it out. We live such short lives on the cosmic scale it is hard to know. What is a hundred thousand or even a million years to the universe?

  • ||

    He actually says almost the same thing in Saturn's Children, too, in explaining why space travel fucking sucks even for androids.

  • ||

    Ultimately I guess transhumanism is the necessary step towards space travel. Our bodies are not cut out for such things. So why not get new bodies?

  • ||

    I agree with you 100% on that, John. And it completely changes space travel from "so difficult and impractical so as to be effectively impossible" to "difficult and impractical, but doable".

  • Tman||

    This idea was explored in Macroscope by Piers Anthony (it was nominated for a Hugo that year). It's one of the best Anthony novels he wrote before he started writing the kind fantasy novels.

    In the novel they essentially build a device reducing their bodies to a liquid state, which then allows them to accelerate past the speeds that would normally destroy our physical bodies.


  • ||

    Hey look guys, Tman just said something good about Piers Anthony! What a jerk!

  • Tman||

    I enjoyed the Incantations of Immortality. series.

    There, I admit it.

    Of course I was twelve when I read them, but still, I did enjoy it. I'm not ashamed.

  • ||

    I did the same thing, but I have the decency to be ashamed.

    (not really)

  • Tman||

    It does baffle me that it's the same guy who wrote Macroscope and the Xanth series.

  • ||

    I can't for the life of me remember the title, and looking up his bibliography isn't helping, but didn't he write a series of novels that started with a game that all the poor people can play, and the one winner each year (?) is given just enough money (it was in the form of some precious material) to be at the very bottom rung of the upper classes, and then tries to make it from there? And the main character wins right at the beginning of the first book?

    I recall thinking that was pretty good at the time, but I can't even confirm it was Anthony.

  • Tman||

    I've read most of his stuff, but I don't remember that plot set up. Might have been someone else.

    (I might be ashamed that I read most of the Xanth series, but again I plead age ignorance -I was twelve man! I didn't know any better!!!)

  • Tman||

    (actually, I just checked, I only read the first 11 of the Xanth series. Apparently that's when I figured out how certainly biological functions work and naked Unicorns just weren't getting it done I suppose).

  • ||

    Xanth started out dumb, and after a few books, went FULL RETARD. Terrible. Those books are what made me hate him, Robert Jordan-style.

  • ||

    I think it was called Juxtaposition or something like that.

    IIRC the poor guys had to run around naked as they were not allowed to have clothing. And they had to compete in everything from the high jump to violin playing. If that isn't weird enough there was an alternate fantasy world the protagonist would go to (I forget how) where he could perform magic by singing in rhymes.

    No I did not just make that up.

  • ||

    That was it. Apprentice Adept series. Good call, dude.

    Yeah, I read it when I was really young so my recollections of "pretty good" might be a little off.

  • Tman||

    Funny, I picked up a Xanth novel a few years ago and within about five minutes managed to question everything I at one time believed was good about science fiction.

    I wonder if people have the same feeling with the Harry Potter series?

  • T||

    Phase something? Yeah, I read them all. The first three Xanth books were good. After that it was an excuse to write horrible puns.

    I gave up on Piers halfway through Incarnations and Bio of a Space Tyrant and haven't looked back. Any comments are tinged with 25 years worth of nostalgia.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's worth noting that Charles Stross is a Brit, i.e. a descendant of those Europeans who felt it was not worth emigrating to those "few acres of snow" known as North America.

    As I've argued before, those who first travel and colonize space won't be doing it for any "rational" reasons. They will be motivated by political or religious ideology.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Voltaire was French.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    descendant of those Europeans

    France is not in Europe?

  • ||

    I would agree with this line of thinking. Historically colonists leave for religious or ideological persecution, real or perceived. Whether it will be materially better isn't as much of a concern provided certain basics are provided. This is the main reason why there was so much English colonization compared to other countries, even those with more of an incentive to exploit the potential resources.

    While the moon and Mars are less hospitable than any place on Earth, they also are less governed.

  • 0x90||

    You missed the point, which was correct. Just because a thing exists, it does not follow that it is, or ever was, practical, or that it would have occurred regardless of the injection of force into the equation. When that force is removed, it becomes possible to make this determination.

    Which is to say that the effect of force is to a) bring into existence things which should not exist, or b) to skew the time-to-market of things which should.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Clearly human space flight is not impracticable, considering that there are half a dozen people on the space station right now.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    By any reasonably objective measure, U.S. human spaceflight policy is an awful mess.

    Deaths per passenger mile still looks pretty good.

  • ||

    Round and round we go.

  • ||

    "Some would say that the Earth is our moon."

  • ||

    But do not believe in those false choices.

  • At Last Shrugged||


  • BakedPenguin||

    "But that would belittle the name of our moon, which is: the Moon."

  • A Serious Man||

    While I agree there's no sense in wasting billions in sending astronauts up, I do like the idea of the James Webb Space Telescope since it's poised to give us an unprecedented look at deep space.

  • Joe||

    Nothing to show? How about technology?

  • Tony||

    It is definitely impractical for people who, because of the constraints of a peculiar dogma, are not allowed ever to pool their resources for purposes other than the protection of property and a couple other narrow-minded concerns.

    Granted, purely speaking of human exploration of space, the program hasn't been terribly productive for its cost, but how many innovations have come from that research that created new industries and improved the quality of life for human beings? Pooling resources for the purpose of scientific advancement is one of the most useful things governments do and perhaps the most important infuser of productivity and progress in markets.

    The libertarian world, where such things aren't allowed because of a terribly misguided (and crankily selfish) definition of freedom, is a dismal place. The ability of markets on their own to innovate is wildly overstated--almost every major innovation of the last century or two (and the industries that they spawned) had help, or was outright created, from an initial investment of government dollars. No matter what advances come in space exploration or space science, you will never be able to say a laissez-faire market delivered them. The laughably inept Ayn Rand worldview is a childish thing, and isn't it about time to put it away?

  • Tman||

    Allow to speak for everyone for a minute if I may.........

    STFU Tony.

  • Tony||

    Nobody's forcing you to believe in childish bullshit. Life is so much better over here, where things like railroads, highways, space travel, the microchip, the Internet, not dying in a smallpox pandemic, and countless other wonderful things are not disallowed under the iron fist of free market dogmatism. You have nothing to offer but empty promises of utopia, like every cult. Why do you guys not see this? How can you believe in such a specific fringe stuff and not ever question why it doesn't catch on? More fundamentally, how can you know it's true when, because it never really catches on, it's never been tested? That's irrational belief right out of the gate.

    How frustrating it must be to have to believe that academia is in a giant conspiracy to oppress you, rather than simply acknowledge that you hang onto an untenable philosophy.

  • Tman||

    Nobody's forcing you to believe in childish bullshit.

    But yet you lap it up like a good dog, don't you tony?

    yesyourareagooddoogtony.....yesyouare....now go fetch me that copy of the federalist papers so I can hit you with them.

  • Tony||

    Sorry but you don't get modern American libertarianism from the Federalist Papers, seeing as how they were written before modern capitalism existed, and were a treatise on how to make a bigger and stronger federal government, and were opposed to enumerating the Bill of Rights. I can list the ways in which the Federalist Papers specifically contradict the tenets of libertarianism. They're almost a direct refutation of it!

  • ||

    Jeez, man... there are gross externalities to feeding the trolls. Just don't do it. Please don't do it.

  • Tony||

    I don't think I've been remotely trollish... though substanceless insults and other childish behavior might qualify.

    If I'm here for any reason it's to get some kind of a grasp on how living in an intellectual bubble can possibly appeal to people.

  • T||

    though substanceless insults and other childish behavior might qualify.

    Such as:

    peculiar dogma

    terribly misguided (and crankily selfish)

    worldview is a childish thing

    childish bullshit

    irrational belief

    Mote, beam, etc, etc.

  • Tony||

    Those are not empty name-calling, they are accusations backed up with explanation. A dogma is a specific thing, and libertarianism is it. Childish might be taking license but at some point one must realize that most normal people stop finding Ayn Rand interesting sometime in high school.

  • Tman||

    Yeah, I should know better. It's just that this version of Tony is so much more annoying than past versions.

    It's tough sometimes to just ignore what a hypocritical asshole he is.

  • ||

    I know it's difficult, but everything worth doing is difficult. Just hold on to that.

  • Tony||

    What have I done that's hypocritical? You don't know how I live. I can think of few things more hypocritical--at least ironic--than using the government-invented Internet to indulge in dogmatic antigovernmentism.

  • ||

    Stay strong, Tman. Count to 10. Take a walk around the block. You can get through this.

  • ||

    I love how Reasonable will just leave a ghost of who I'm ignoring. It's like someone you hate shouting at you, from the outside, through a closed window in a loud, busy diner, which just makes them angrier.


  • ||

    "Just walk away, Tman...just walk away."

  • Tman||

    (walks away Eastwood style...shoots a hippie for good measure...)

  • ||

    It really pisses you off that others can dream about things that you could never even fathom and that they might actually even have the balls to try it, don't it?

    No surprise, you are the stereotypical type to sit in the corner of you mommies basement afraid to try anything that you might fail at, which I am guessing by your whining attitude, would be pretty much anything.

  • .||

    "not allowed ever to pool their resources"

    You said this, but you meant something else. As usual.

  • -||

    human expansion off the planet

    That's never been a goal of NASA. Such a goal is certainly unfeasible at this time and for the foreseeable future. Private space "exploration" in the near future will focus primarily on satellite boosts and suborbital joyrides for the wealthy. Huzzah!

  • ||

    Personal computerized phones in everyone's pocket

    That's never been a goal of the FCC. Such a goal is certainly unfeasible at this time and for the foreseeable future. Private "telecommunications" in the near future will focus primarily on more FAX lines and radio car phones for the wealthy. Huzzah!

  • ||

    Now thats what I am talking about dude.



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