Spotlight: Universal Attorney

Art Dula


Science fiction author Robert Heinlein once wrote, "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." Attorney Art Dula has taken Heinlein seriously.

As a prelaw student at Eastern New Mexico University, Dula majored in chemistry and minored in math. He went on to Tulane University's law school, where he distinguished himself on the law review. He has worked as a patent attorney in high-technology areas that include medicine, interstellar mining techniques, and solar sails for powering spacecraft.

Dula's library houses both first-edition Heinleins and antique law books. He lectures on the future of space development and the history of law and brings them together to fight for the right to capitalize on the vast resources available beyond the earth's atmosphere. The major threat to seeing space developed in our lives, Dula worries, is that profits in private space ventures may be outlawed.

The United Nations' 1967 Treaty of Principles declares that the resources of space are "the common heritage of all mankind." Though the US government, encouraged by Dula and others, rejects a collectivist interpretation of that phrase, it is clear that the Soviet Union and most Third World nations believe that developers should be able to exploit space only with their permission and that the profits from such ventures should be distributed among all nations.

"The United Nations," objects Dula, "is not a particularly useful forum for developing the law of space. Half the countries in the UN don't have the GNP of San Francisco, and lots of the people who are sent to the UN are sent to get them out of their home countries." From the beginning, the Soviets have attempted to ban profits in space. The first draft of the 1967 treaty forbade free enterprise in space but was scuttled by US opposition and a very practical move of establishing a commercial, quasi-private satellite system, Comsat, in the year that the profit ban was proposed.

"Space is the frontier!" Dula exclaims. Dula is convinced that development is inevitable if governments don't succeed in tying business to earth, but even the US government is not sold on encouraging entrepreneurship. In a 1978 report he wrote for NASA, he detailed 10 factors discouraging private participation in the shuttle program and blamed the NASA Act—the national space law—for most of them.

A good example is NASA's discouraging the development of private booster systems. Even more significant is the agency's policy of retaining all patents developed using their operations. NASA has the legal power to disseminate to other companies and governments any trade secrets developed by private firms using its facilities, including the space shuttle. This policy destroys much of the entrepreneurial advantage of research and development in space. NASA has even banned the transportation of trinkets on the shuttle system, though the sale of buttons and pens that have taken a shuttle ride could go far toward financing scientific experiments.

Dula is also critical of NASA's concentration on military and academic activities, pushing commercial projects into the background. NASA, he complains, doesn't understand that frontiers are settled for economic, not scientific, reasons.

After working as a consultant to NASA and General Dynamics studying the possibilities for financial activities in space, Dula opened his own practice in aerospace and technical law in late 1979, in Houston. He also joined three ex-NASA engineers to start Eagle Engineering. The company deals with existing high- technology problems and does assessments of as yet undeveloped enterprises such as solar power stations and ocean-thermal-energy systems.

Entrepreneurs have always resented the delays but overcome the bureaucrats, so the question put to Dula is, "When will space be inhabited and developed?" He has promised his wife, a banking attorney, that they'll visit the moon by 2001. He compares the aerospace industries today to a pot just before it boils. "Investment is hyperbolic," he says. "It starts slow and then explodes." He expects a significant part of GNP to be related to space by the first part of the 1990s. "A single nickel-iron asteroid less than 100 meters in diameter is an economic resource worth $5 billion," he points out. "We know we have a resource base that is more than 10,000 times greater than that which is available on earth, using technology already in existence."

Though Third World governments are trying to prevent space development, Dula is concerned that, without private enterprise in this realm, the Third World community will not be able to break out of its long-standing poverty and illiteracy. Dula quotes Wells: "It's the universe or nothing. It's the only place to get resources for everybody if we want to continue to improve the world's standard of living."

For astute Americans, Dula advises keeping track of aerospace industries for the financial opportunities they will afford. In addition, he urges the support of politicians who favor entrepreneurial activities in space. He says he "tithes" about 10 percent of his income to people and organizations who work toward that end. Obvious areas of investment are in communications and zero-gravity manufacturing, but Dula says the most important areas probably haven't been discovered yet. "I'm trying to be conservative," he says, "but we're ready now. Both culturally and economically, space is the frontier."

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.