Every so often a nation or a civilization reaches a turning point, a time when a fundamental decision must be made. Technology increasingly creates such situations, as it opens up hitherto undreamed-of possibilities.
In the first two decades of the 20th century the development of radio raised the issue of property rights in the electromagnetic frequency spectrum. Unfortunately, private property rights were denied and the spectrum was socialized, as people accepted the fallacy that "the airwaves belong to everyone." We are still paying the price for that unfortunate decision, in FCC bureaucracy and monopolistic networks.
In the 1960s the technology to exploit mineral resources on the deep seabed began to be developed, and once again a turning point was reached. This time, too, the idea of public ownership came to the fore. The seabed is the "common heritage of mankind," claimed the UN ambassador of Malta, and a United Nations dominated by collectivist ideas readily agreed. Ten years of Law of the Sea Conferences are close to yielding a treaty spelling out the sorry implications of this decision.
In 1980 the same sort of turning point has arrived for outerspace development. Readers of REASON's April 1979 issue on space privatization will have some idea of the very real possibilities on the horizon. The vast mineral wealth of the moon and the asteroids can provide material for the construction of solar power satellites, orbiting industrial facilities, and permanent space colonies. This many sound like the wildest science fiction, but the resources are there, the technology is available, and many of these projects are at least within sight of being commercially viable, if enough start-up capital can be raised.
Into this vision of tomorrow has stepped the United Nations. By the time you read this, the General Assembly will very likely have voted (with US support) to approve an "Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies," otherwise known as the Moon Treaty. Originated by the Soviet Union and backed enthusiastically by the Third World governments, the treaty is a virtual carbon copy of the deep-seabed provisions of the Law of the Sea treaty. In a word, the Moon Treaty would collectivize outer space.
More specifically, the treaty's provisions, which apply to all celestial bodies other than the earth, would do the following:
• prohibit all territorial claims by States, corporations, and individuals;
• prohibit private or governmental exploitation of the resources of any celestial body, except under rigid UN control;
• establish an international regime to carry out such resource exploitation;
• provide for "equitable distribution" of the results of such exploitation, taking special account of the needs of the developing nations; and
• transfer technology needed for resource exploitation from those developing it to the international regime.
The guiding principle of the entire treaty is the idea that outer space is the "common heritage of mankind"—that is, common (socialized) property. A few dreamers among US diplomats and the aerospace industry seem to think that the treaty's language is vague enough that it may not necessarily forbid all private space resource exploitation. But that view is nonsense, according to international law expert Leigh S. Ratiner, who served four years as the principal American negotiator for deep-seabed resources at the Law of the Sea Conferences. In testimony before the House space science subcommittee in September, Ratiner pointed out that the "common heritage" principles have been discussed so extensively during the seabed debates that the terms involved have all developed very clear-cut meanings.
By analogy, therefore, Ratiner thinks we can expect the space exploitation Authority to be controlled by a one-nation/one-vote assembly, whose decisions would be exempt from judicial review. Resource exploitation would be centrally planned and severely limited so as to protect Third World mineral producers. All activities (living and working in space?) having anything to do with resource exploitation would come under control of the Authority.
In socializing the vast frontier of outer space, the Moon Treaty would dash completely any hopes for significant private investment and development, thereby tremendously slowing down humanity's progress toward living and working in space. As the editor of Omni put it in a recent editorial (Nov. 1979): "No private enterprise will risk billions of dollars on a moon-based silicon factory if most of the world disputes its legal right to profit from that factory."
The Soviets and their Third World allies clearly seek the unearned. Having seen what Western technology has now made possible in space, they want to seize a controlling share (note the provision for mandatory technology transfer, not just for the "equitable" division of the proceeds). We're hardly even launched into space, and already the pirates are seeking to board and loot the ship!
Perhaps the most galling is that our own State Department has gone along with this outrage—and that Jimmy Carter is considered likely to sign the Moon Treaty! Fortunately, even if he does so, it cannot become law without Senate ratification. And that is where an aroused populace can save the day.
The L-5 Society has taken the lead in alerting the public, joined (thus far) by the American Astronautical Society and the editors of Omni and Future Life. The Aerospace Industries Association, the National Space Institute, and the Sunsat Energy Council seem likely to follow suit. Now is the time for all advocates of liberty and the free market to act: the Libertarian Party, the National Taxpayers Union, the Council for a Competitive Economy, and others should mobilize their members to defeat the Moon Treaty in the Senate. Industry associations, technical societies, conservative groups, and science fiction organizations should be pressured to do likewise.
Humanity stands at the threshold of space. Will we go forward to a bold new frontier, unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of free men and women? Or will the promise of space be drowned in a sea of socialism? The choice may be up to you.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Space Piracy".