Thursday, March 02, 2006

Property In Space

Today's vacation activities included a viewing of the 3D Imax movie, "Magnificent Desolation." The movie contains 3D reenactments of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 15 moon landings in a great deal of detail. Pardon the pun, but it puts the moon landings in a whole new perspective.

It was a wonderful experience. I'm going to go see it again.

Combine this with my choice of reading material for this vacation, RETURN TO THE MOON edited by Rick N. Tumlinson with Erin R. Mendicott, and you can get an idea of where my mind likes to go when I am on vacation.

In spite of the sentiment that I feel towards the Apollo program and the sentimental attraction I feel for a return to the moon, I am not in favor of President Bush's program to establish a south pole lunar base. Part of the reason is that I expect this program to turn out like the Space Shuttle and International Space Station -- I expect it to be long on promise and short on delivery. There will be cost overruns and delays that will weigh heavily against the federal deficit and the funding crisis for Social Security, Medicare and the Iraq War.

Instead, I would like to direct the reader's attention to the activities of companies such as Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceDev, and Space Adventures, Inc. This time, while NASA stumbles, these companies may well race past, and beat NASA to the moon. NASA's lunar base will be cut because, if they went ahead with the mission, wealthy tourists will already be there to watch the landing first hand.


However, one thing that we must have for the development of space to extend beyond the possibility of tours for extremely wealthy tourists is a way for individuals and companies to own real estate on the moon.

Whereas the development of space is essential to the long-term survival of the human race, and the establishment of private property is essential to the development of space, the establishment of these property rights is a moral imperative. Of course, I am not talking about a moral imperative in the Kantian sense, but in the desire utilitarian sense. All things considered, more human desires hinge upon the survival of the human race than upon its demise.

While the United States was winning the technological race against the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon, the Soviet Union was winning the political race to institute communism in outer space. The "Outer Space Treaty" pretty much says that, when it comes to developing space, the resources to do so will come from each nation according to its ability, and be handed out to each nation according to its need. The "Moon Treaty" took this a step further, claiming explicitly that no heavenly body including the moon "shall become the property of any State, international intergovernmental, or non-government organization, national organization, or non-governmental entity or of any natural person."

In other words, the possibility of somebody owning an acre or two of lunar real-estate was prohibited.

Fortunately, none of the countries that could use space at the time, including the Soviet Union, agreed to those terms.

That was a good thing.

Without private property in space, there will be no private investment in space. Space will not be used for the benefit of anybody, even the poor, until and unless it is possible for companies and individuals to acquire secure deeds to territory on the moon and the resources beneath it.

No mining company is going to extract the metals that exist on the moon until they can sell those materials for a profit. No tourist organization is going to establish a vacation resort on the moon until it can pocket the money it gets from its customers.

Some of the sentiment associated with these treaties still remains. In 1996, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution stating that outer space may be used only "for the benefit and interests of all states, in particular the needs of developing countries." However, these expressions of sentiment leave open the question of how space will be used in the interest of developing countries. In particular, it leaves open the possibility of establishing property rights in a way that benefit these countries.

Free Market Purists

In discussing space development, I have encountered a number of free-market purists. These are people who agree with me that some sort of private property system is necessary for the development of space. Without it, space will remain unused, and the people of Earth will suffer for it. We may even cease to exist.

These purists have a simple two-step plan that they insist must be used to develop space resources. They will accept no compromise. Those steps are:

(1) Step 1: Convert the vast majority of the population of Earth to libertarianism.

(2) Step 2: Use this power to apply libertarian principles to space development.

Most that I have met are against any sort of compromise -- space must be settled on their terms or not at all. The practical implication of this is that space will not be settled. It will never get past Step 1.

It shows a great deal of arrogance to say, "Things must be done my way or not at all." The person who makes such a claim can only be taken as believing in his own infallibility -- that there is no possible way that those with different ideas might have a point. The moral failing of arrogance tends to be quite destructive -- in this case destroying the opportunities available by the development that could take place under some compromise position.

Land Grant Colleges

I think that the principle of using space to assist those on earth who are most in need of assistance is a perfectly admirable principle. This, in turn, suggests a possible solution to the question of how best to establish private property in space that Thomas Jefferson proposed over 200 years ago.

Jefferson had a similar problem to solve. The American government claimed ownership of land west of the Appalachian Mountains. (For the sake of this essay, let us set aside the issue as to whether these claims are legitimate. The moon does not have a native population of inhabitents who would, if they did exist, have a legitimate prior claim to the land.) Jefferson wanted to put this land into the hands of individual Americans. To accomplish this, he suggested dividing the land into townships. Each township was six miles wide and six miles long and divided up into thirty-six sections. Each section was a square mile. Jefferson had section 16 in each township reserved to finance public education. Much of Jefferson’s system was formalized in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Let us apply this principle to the moon. It can begin by chartering a University of Earth. When I think of such a university, what I have in mind is a boarding school where children from countries consumed by poverty a "University of Earth" I have in mind a school for children from countries consumed by poverty and war can go to stay. Students would be provided with good food, medical care, shelter, and peace while they studied the subjects taught at the school. Of course, we would not be able to save all of the children in this way, but we would be able to give some a better life than they would have otherwise had.

To fund this school, we divide the moon up into townships. Each township would be 10 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. They would be further divided into 100 sections, each 1 square kilometer. Each section, in turn, would be divided up into 100 lots -- each 100 meters by 100 meters (approximately 2.5 acres). The major difference between this system and Jefferson’s system is that all of the land is given over to the University of Earth with the requirement that it start selling this land to fund its operations.

I imagine the University of Earth beginning its operation by establishing a Region of 100 townships in a 100km by 100km square. This will hold one million lots. If each lot were to sell for $100, then the University of Earth would be able to begin operations with $100 million.

There are companies selling real-estate on the moon today. Taking advantage of ambiguities in the law, they "claimed" the moon for their company and began selling sections. While I do not think that there is any chance that these organizations can claim a legal title to the moon, and that these deeds are novelty items of no real worth, they prove that there is a market for lunar territory. An organization with an internationally recognized right to sell the land, using it to fund a "University of Earth" to rescue children from the worst conditions on the planet, should be able to make some money.

There is enough real-estate on the moon for nearly 4,000 such offerings. However, let us not pretend that these numbers would survive a decision to put the whole moon up for sale at once.

It would be in the school's interest to hold onto much of the land to sell at later dates, as property values go up. It would also be in the school's interest to lease some territory rather than sell it, so that it can collect some rents over time without giving up the land, though ultimately the charter would require that most of the land be sold. Also, it would be useful for the University of Earth to hold on to some territory for its own use – for establishing research stations and, some day, a lunar campus. Of course, the school charter would not allow it to sell the Apollo landing sites. It would, instead, have the authority to establish tourist centers at such a place, where visitors can look out the glass window at the undisturbed site and go through a nearby Museum of Space Travel owned and operated by the University of Earth.

Consistent with all of this, the first offering could be 99 townships surrounding the Apollo 11 landing site, which the University of Earth would hold onto as its own for constructing a lunar campus and museum at some date.

One hundred million dollars from the first offering (and this is merely an estimate) would be enough for the University of Earth to begin operations. It would begin construction of its facilities while it selected the first set of students to attend. Meanwhile, it would prepare the second offering.


On the issue of governing the Region, one possibility would be to establish a "Property Owners' Association" where those who purchased lots would automatically become members. The POA would collect dues and, with the money, engage in regional projects. Perhaps one of the first projects would be to send a lunar orbiter to make some slow flights over the region to take detailed pictures of peoples’ plots. Of course, renters in residence (when there are some) will also be allowed to be members of this organization. We would not want to establish a system where only owners had a right to vote.

These Regions may eventually become counties in one or more lunar states. One principle that we should accept at the start is that those who choose to live in space have a right to govern themselves at some point. Just as America adopted a way for territories to become equal states within the union, the settlement of space should include criteria for space settlements to become nations enjoying a status equal to that of any government on Earth.


I am not under any delusions that the leaders of the world will start debating the merits of this suggestion in the near future. I am not under any delusions that they will even become aware of it.

But, I am on vacation and entitled to certain flights of fancy. I would suggest that this essay is best used as a case study that illustrates many of the principles that I have written about elsewhere, and applying them to a specific concern.

Those principles include:

(1) A respect for the fact that policies that inhibit private property rights also inhibit growth and that secure private property is essential in any area where we wish to attract private investment and growth.

(2) A concern for the future of humanity -- specifically, a concern that humanity has a future. This means turning attention towards issues that are related to the future of humanity. (3) A concern for children who, like all of us, have only one life to live and can be given a better life, and an interest in making a better life for children born to regions where they have little hope.

(4) The value of knowledge and understanding as the best tools we have available for solving all of our other problems and a willingness to direct institutions to provide more people with a better education than they would have otherwise had.

(5) A devotion to political principles that insist on extending representation to all residents regardless of whether they own property as well as allowing those who face unique situations and environments to govern their own future rather than owe their allegiance to a distant government with different concerns.

(6) A willingness to compromise – to listen to the concerns of others and to make allowances for them, rather than to assert, “I am the master of all wisdom and only those concerns that I share serve as the legitimate foundation for any policy I would support.”

These principles are applicable to a number of areas. Applying them to the issue of space development, we can derive something like the proposal I have suggested above.

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