Friday, March 03, 2006

Misscelanious Issues in Space Development

Sadly, my vacation is now over. Tomorrow, I will tether my mind to the real world and start catching up on all of the things that I have missed over the past week.

However, that can wait until tomorrow. I have one more day to dream about a better future before I go back to examining how people are screwing up the present. So, in this posting, I would like to address four areas of controversy in space development.

(1) Man vs. Machine

A lot of electrons tend to get spilled in a debate over whether it is worthwhile to send humans into space. When it comes to doing scientific research, we can get good quality data from robots. Sending humans will increase the quality of the data somewhat. However, it is unfair to compare the quality of data from one human visitor versus one robotic visitor. The fair comparison would be the data between one human visitors and 100 robotic visitors that we can send for the same amount of money. Plus, we have to add concern for the loss of human life when we send people.

Proponents of manned missions tend to make a significant strategic error when they enter into this type of debate. They accept the assumption that research is the only legitimate reason to explore space. From this, they try to argue that actual astronauts can do a significantly better job collecting useful data. Scientists can see this for what it is. It is a rationalization – an example of believing what one wants to believe. There is no way that 1 astronaut can provide more data than 100 robots.

To see what is wrong with this argument, I would like to see a show of hands from the studio audience. How many of you spend one hundred percent of your time exclusively concerned with scientific research – to the degree that even eating and sex are mere tools for promoting scientific understanding?

That’s what I thought. None of you.

Okay, I am taking a guess, but I think it is a reasonable guess. I just spent a week in Las Vegas, and I would bet that with all of the people there, only a very small percentage of their time and money was spent in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

We humans have a right to be interested in things other than science. We have a right to be interested in such things as “being there.” In Las Vegas, there were tours for sale – helicopter tours of Las Vegas itself, as well as tours of the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam. None of these people were going anywhere that no man has gone before. If they were merely interested in acquiring facts about the place of interest, they could have rented a video. However, their interest was in “being there.” For that, they were willing to pay a hundred times as much as it would have cost to send a machine to take pictures and transmit data.

To answer the advocate of robotic exploration, one does not need to argue that humans are better scientists than robots. It is sufficient to answer, “Fine. To the degree that we are interested in pure scientific data, we send robots. To the degree that we have other interests – such as an interest in “being there” – we send humans. Your robots cannot give us that.”

(2) Moon vs. Mars

The Mars Society argues that we should send missions to Mars and bypass the moon. The moon is a useless rock that lacks vital resources. Mars has everything humans need to survive. Moon enthusiasts assert that Mars is too far away and too expensive and a destination fit only for a hand full of government-paid astronauts.

I consider this to be a waste of time.

As to where the government should send people using taxpayer money, I see no reason to care. These adventures may make for great television (for as long as they last), but they will not have a significant effect on the course of space development. To have a great effect, they would have to consume huge quantities of tax revenue. There will always be better things to spend tax money on.

To see the course of space development, one needs to look at the options and ask where it makes sense for private business to spend its money. The true space enthusiast does not look for places to spend taxpayer money at a net loss, but looks for areas where investors will have reason to put their money to realize possible gain.

I have my ideas. However, it is important to note that these ideas are predictions, and not policy. Over time, it will be possible to see whether I am right or I am wrong.

My prediction is that most space development will not take place on either the moon or on Mars. I see two large space communities developing; one in low-earth orbit, and another in geosynchronous orbit. These communities will be built from material hauled in from smaller asteroids – not from the moon, which is too far down another huge gravity well.

There are asteroids that periodically come very close to earth on trajectories that require very little energy to transfer materials from them to Earth orbit. Low energy translates into “inexpensive.”

Why Earth orbit?

• From earth orbit it is a lot less expensive to interact with the surface of the earth.

• Tourists can visit earth orbit for the weekend.

• Scientists can send up experiments to conduct the zero-or micro-gravity part of the experiment then return the results to Earth where the scientists can use much better equipped earthbound laboratories.• Workers can build and repair earth-orbiting satellites, including weather and communication satellites, platforms for manufacturing materials useful on Earth, power satellites for transmitting power to Earth, and refueling and assembly stations for material going elsewhere in the solar system.

• Residents can communicate efficiently with Earth, participating in real-time conversations for the sake of business or pleasure.

• People in need of emergency medical care can more easily reach Earth and the earth-based medical facilities.

• People on Earth who can benefit from the strain of lower gravity can be more easily and economically transported to facilities in orbit.

• Individuals and businesses can select their gravity from zero gravity to normal earth gravity and beyond and can be set up to easily shift from one gravity level to another.

• Transportation costs from one station to another are minimal; a burst of a rocket engine and off it goes.All of these represent values that people have, and all of these values are better realized in space than on either the moon or Mars.

I want to repeat that this is not a prediction. I am not advocating any policy to promote the earth over the moon or Mars. In terms of policy, I would recommend only that the government get involved to the point that it needs to capture the value of certain public goods, such as preventing environmental degradation and saving the human race from extinction. From this, decide where those who are spending the money decide where they want to spend it.

(3) Mining Minerals

Imagine that Company M is a mining company. It is looking to open up a new mine for some particularly valuable material such as platinum. It has two options.

a) It can go into the sea and start strip-mining the ocean floor, cutting out huge sections the way it has engaged in the open-pit mining of resources found on land.

b) It can find an asteroid, already a pile of gravel flying in loose formation, and harvest the materials there.

The accountant will say that Option 1 is the least expensive – and, consequently, the most profitable. However, this is partially due to the fact that the mining company will be able to force others to pay some of its cost. Future generations will suffer the costs of environmental degradation, not the company that caused it, unless those costs are somehow written into the company’s license.

The asteroid, on the other hand, is a dead hunk of rock. There is no living ecosystem to destroy. Furthermore, the material will be hauled across the vacuum of space, still doing no harm to a living ecosystem. It can be shipped to a manufacturing plant located in space, fueled by the heat of the sun. It will draw no power from the earth’s energy grid, and its pollutants will not become a part of earth’s atmosphere or water supplies. Much of the work converting this ore to its final, most useful form can be carried out in space. Once the process is done, the material is loaded into a capsule and dropped out of the sky to a space port. This is the only act having any environmental impact.

If we were to figure in all of the costs of harvesting material from the ocean floor and force the mining company to pay those costs as well, it is not so clear that ocean mining has the lower cost. At the very least, we have an argument for demanding that the government either include these costs in mining operations, and/or conduct more and better research on how to take advantage of the mining opportunities that exist in the dead of space.

(4) Land Claims Recognition

Former ABC and CBS broadcast journalist Alan Wasser has been advocating a plan to have the United States government recognize and defend a land claim made by a private company that sets up a space settlement.

Specifically, though the Outer Space Treaty prohibits any government from claiming national sovereignty over the Moon, it does not prohibit a private company from claiming ownership. Wasser’s plan is for a private entity to set up a lunar station, then claim 600,000 square miles of land (4% of the total lunar surface). This would provide the incentive for a company to carry out such an operation.

Whereas I modeled my proposal yesterday on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Wasser is modeling his after the railroad grants later in the 1800s. As payment for building railroads across the Pacific, the Federal Government gave railroads every other section of land along their route. The value of this land helped the railroad companies to secure financing. One difference is that, in this case the US government will not give the land (it cannot claim it to give it). Instead, it announces that it will use whatever means are at its disposal to defend a company's claim to that land.

I have argued that space development contains elements of a “public good” that warrant government expenditures or subsidies. In spite of this, I see several problems with the land-claim option.

A) The land grant is offered for the completion of a particular task. In the 1860s, the task was the construction of a transcontinental railroad. In order for the land grant to be worthwhile, the task in question actually has to be a task made useful for space development. If the government does not pick the right task, then a huge amount of wealth is given over to nothing.

B) The land grant establishes monopoly power. We may assume that any company that goes to the moon and claims 600,000 square miles of land is going to claim that land around the lunar poles. These are the only places with near permanent sunshine and darkness that are useful locations for power and have the potential for water ice, which would be a valuable resource. A land grant may give the entirety of these resources to one or two companies.

C) Much of the world would recognize this maneuver as an attempt by the United States to claim territory in violation of current treaties. It would be presented to the world as a “claim of national sovereignty by proxy”. In this case, the private American company would provide the proxy.

D) Imagine the situation whereby Exxon Mobile was made the owner of the entire state of Alaska. The 600,000 square mile land grant is approximately equal to Alaska’s land area, and under Wasser’s terms it would become the private property of one company. Such a plan would take the concept of a “company town” to a whole new level, effectively creating a “company state”.

E) It contains an element of “rich gets richer.” Those who have the money to finance such a project (the rich) get rewarded with huge tracks of land (get richer). I have no problem with the rich getting richer. The problem comes from them doing so with government help using rigged contests that others lack the capacity to compete in.

F) Finally, other countries will certainly challenge the claim. China, for example, would have no incentive to refrain from landing its craft and setting up its base within the 600,000 square miles claimed by this American company. In order to truly establish these rights, the United States government would have to be prepared to back up the claim with the force of its military. Otherwise, the claim is meaningless.

The advantage of something like the University of Earth is that it is consistent with a set of principles that has already passed approval by the United Nations – a way to use space resources that benefit the poorer people of Earth. In this case, it would benefit children born to areas where their prospects for a bright future would otherwise be bleak.

I recognize Wasser’s concern. He wishes to find a way to finance space development other than through taxpayer revenue. The land grant would accomplish this goal. Yet, an economically more sensible option would be for the government to require mining companies to pay all of the costs associated with harvesting resources by cutting into a living ecosystem, while there would be no such costs for the company harvesting resources from the dead of space.

Wasser also provided another reason for this land grant legislation. If passed, it may inspire international negotiations on an alternative treaty. It would force other countries to the bargaining table. I do not have much to say about the plan as a political tactic. I do not do political tactics. I am only interested in the idea on its own merits.

I suspect that Wasser and his allies would object to the option I presented yesterday on the grounds that no body actually owns the lunar surface to have a right to give it away. Actually, if the governments of the world agree to a treaty using the territory to fund a University of Earth, then this is all that is required to establish a valid claim. Objections that this would still not be a legitimate claim can only be built on the assumption that there are a set of intrinsic natural moral laws governing the creation of such a claim. Intrinsic moral laws of this type do not exist.

Consistent with this, and with the idea that it is better to get a plan adopted than to stubbornly stick to one's own ideas, if Wasser musters support for his proposal, we are better off accepting it than fighting it.


This represents a few random thoughts on the development of space, from somebody who has given the issue a fair amount of thought. With this, I end my vacation, and I return to the real world.

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