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Lunar base illustration
A prize like the one proposed by the Aldridge Commission could jumpstart lunar settlement. (credit: NASA)

The space settlement prize

Sam, thank you very much for saying “the Space Settlement Initiative is the best legislation out there. So I support it.” It was also supported, at least in principle, by the most important recommendation of the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, Recommendation 5-2:

Recommendation 5-2. The Commission recommends that Congress increase the potential for commercial opportunities related to the national space exploration vision by:
  • Providing incentives for entrepreneurial investment in space.
  • Creating significant monetary prizes for the accomplishment of space missions and/or technology developments.
  • Assuring appropriate property rights for those who seek to develop space resources and infrastructure.

The Aldridge Commission’s report outlines one of the possible ways the U.S. could establish a commercial incentive as recommended:

“... the Commission suggests that… as an example of a particularly challenging prize concept, $100 million to $1 billion could be offered to the first organization to place humans on the Moon and sustain them for a fixed period before they return to Earth.”

The other way the U.S. could provide such a “Space Settlement Prize” is through establishing a system of recognized property rights in space, such as that proposed by the Space Settlement Initiative. That way would be less conventional but would have the advantage of not requiring any appropriation of government money.

If the private sector could be provided a powerful incentive to finance and build a regular space transportation system and permanent lunar base, concerns about a long-range space program overly burdening the taxpayer would evaporate. Corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others already have the technical capability. All they’ve needed is a sufficient profit motivation.

If the private sector could be provided a powerful incentive to finance and build a regular space transportation system and permanent lunar base, concerns about a long-range space program overly burdening the taxpayer would evaporate.

The Space Settlement Initiative would instantly create a strong profit incentive for private industry to underwrite the development of lunar bases. Even if the eventual average value of land on the Moon were only $100 an acre, the total value of the real estate on the Moon would be over $1 trillion.

The Space Settlement Initiative invokes a tried-and-true mechanism used successfully by governments throughout history to encourage development of uninhabited regions: the allocation to private entities of large tracts of land in exchange for building settlements and facilities that meet government-defined standards and benefit everyone.

While traditional land grants similar to those used by the U.S. government to develop the old West are not possible in space because national ownership of land is forbidden by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, legislation could be enacted to achieve the same ends using the related concept of “land claim recognition.”

Under a land claim recognition protocol, Congress could pass legislation providing that for any private, non-government corporation or consortium that financed and built a space transportation system and permanent Moon base, a limited (but still very large) claim to lunar land around the base would be legally “recognized” by the U.S. government.

Recognition means the government would acquiesce to, or decide not to contest, the claim, but not assume any sovereignty over it. Once the space transportation system and lunar base were certified, the private consortium would be free to immediately mortgage or sell, back here at home, some of their lunar land deeds to recoup their investment and make a profit.

Even if the eventual average value of land on the Moon were only $100 an acre, the total value of the real estate on the Moon would be over $1 trillion.

Sam offers to bet me a lunar acre, and I think that’s a great bet. But let’s be sure we agree on the terms. I believe that, for claiming ownership over space real estate, some form of the classic Roman legal principal called pedis possessio will have to apply. Pedis possessio means that the first entity to set foot (pedis) upon and occupy a space can claim possession, and most of the world’s property rights laws are based on that principal. Sam says that won’t be necessary in space. Shall we say our bet will be won when the US government officially recognizes legal ownership of lunar real estate? If the recognized claim isn’t based on some form of pedis possessio, I owe Sam a lunar acre. If it is, Sam owes me that acre. Right?

Sam said: “By offering a monopoly on space transport or at least a limited number of franchises, that may be a sufficient upside to change the nature of the game from one where the upside has to be shared to one where it can be captured by the firm or few firms with franchises.”

Since it would own the transport system it developed, the lunar landing base, and the land around the base probably including the lunar south pole, the consortium that wins this prize will have a de facto monopoly—just as Sam describes—but without requiring an international organization to issue franchises. Unless it got wildly greedy, or failed to develop its base, it would be much more efficient for potential competitors to purchase what they need from the winning consortium than try to build their own transport system.

In conclusion, what we need most is some Congressman or Senator courageous enough to sponsor an economic incentive bill in Congress as the Aldridge Commission recommended, promising a “Space Settlement Prize” of a huge monetary award and/or land claim recognition. Public support from NASA and the aerospace companies would certainly help with that.

A “Space Settlement Prize” would be a farsighted effort to redefine U.S. space policy, while saving taxpayers billions of dollars, by creating a tremendous new incentive for private space development.


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