The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Asteroid mission illustration
Cataloging and utilizing the vast resources of near Earth asteroids may be the solution to the economic woes of the planet. (credit: NASA)

Utilizing ET wealth: building a new world

Fifty years from now, according to UN projections, the human population will have increased by half. Also, according to projections, the gap between rich nation and poor will have widened, and the rate of separation will have begun a dramatic acceleration as the rich nations continue to develop technology-based economies while the poor are left with commodity-based ones, often tied to one commodity. Terrorists will thrive in the desperately poor urban areas of many megacities in the developing world, using the social conditions there to justify their actions. They will also have access to weapons of mass destruction, according to The New Terrorism, a 1999 book by Walter Laquer, a leading expert on terrorism and strategic affairs. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while monstrous, are only mild tastes of what terrorists in the future could do.

The world described above will be politically and socially unstable, not to mention likely drenched in blood. A counterbalance is needed that can convince the poor that a new and better future awaits them if they work for it. Such convincing will be difficult; the poor have always been told precisely that fable. To bring them along this time, therefore, will require a big and fundamental shift in international economic policy, one that protects and encourages the free market system but at the same time devotes unprecedented levels of capital to dealing with the myriad and gargantuan problems of the developing world.

President Bush has vowed to destroy the worldwide terror network. That is a necessary first step, but it is only a phase-one policy. Unless the conditions that lend themselves to exploitation are addressed, today’s terrorists will only be followed by a new generation of terrorists. Phase two in any war on terrorism must, therefore, give people living in poverty, misery, and hopelessness reason to hope and dream. They must have the confidence that will allow them to plan for a brighter future. President Bush has based his policies towards Afghanistan and Iraq on that logic.

To save the planet, however, means reaching creatively beyond the planet.

On the theory that every human should have a decent physical life and the opportunity to pursue interests and goals and happiness, one fundamental challenge of this century must be to raise the standard of living of the vast majority of mankind. By the end of the twenty-first century, most people should be living at a level comparable to that enjoyed by middle-class Americans today.

That would seem to be a challenge doomed to disaster. The alternative, however, is terrifying, and may well result in the abandonment of democratic values in a world obsessed with survival and security. If the gods tire of protecting humanity from our worst impulses, failing to meet the challenge—or at least attempting to meet it—could result in much more than the rejection of a particular political philosophy.

There is a way to proceed. Based on current international law, building a framework for broadening the human economy to the point that it is large enough to begin to reshape large parts of the planet can be done. To save the planet, however, means reaching creatively beyond the planet.

Critics of the space program have traditionally argued the money spent there could better be applied to Earthly concerns. Besides the fact that the money is not shot off into space—it is spent on Earth, paying salaries of good jobs for engineers and scientists, among other uses—such a position is shortsighted. Earth is a sphere; it therefore has finite volume and finite resources. Some resources can be renewed, but others cannot. To endure beyond some point as a vibrant civilization, humanity will need to move into space. The billions in China and India working to have better material lives put added strain on Earth’s resources and environment. Many more nations besides those two are trying hard to develop their societies, as well. The point at which we will need to look outward may be closer than we realize.

Humans now travel to space regularly, have walked on Earth’s moon, and have sent probes to explore everything in this solar system from comets and the tiny moons of Mars to mighty Jupiter and the Sun itself. Earth is still the home of mankind, but it no longer contains the alpha and omega of the human experience. Beyond home there are paths to other places; whole new continents exist across a deep, black sea.

To jump-start the essential work of the century, therefore, meshing the Information Age and the Space Age is necessary.

Early in the twenty-first century, however, using the resources of our home solar system will be extraordinarily expensive. So far in the Space Age, the only business that has even seriously attempted to make a profit directly from space operations has been the Earth orbital satellite industry. It has grown to handle communications of various forms—television, telephone, computer networks—and the imaging of the Earth and its atmosphere. Given the cost of operating a spacecraft, the only resource that could be profitably returned from space has been information. Valuable information.

To jump-start the essential work of the century, therefore, meshing the Information Age and the Space Age is necessary.

The law that currently governs human activities in the Solar System is the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty. Written at a time that saw only two governments mounting substantial space programs, and during a cold war between two philosophies that had few points of agreement and many opportunities for desperately dangerous confrontations, the Outer Space Treaty is not up to the new realities of the new century. The underlying principles of the treaty, however, are useful. One such principle holds that space is to be explored and used “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries.” It also speaks of the space beyond Earth as “the province of all mankind.” That phrase suggests more than an area to be owned; it envisions the solar system as a vast arena in which humans can act. Upon that rather romantic notion a new legal structure might be built.

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