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Moonbase illustration
Should an international organization coordinate the development of a lunar outpost? (credit: NASA)

Question (lunar) authority

If the European Union (EU) and especially the French want a Moonbase, they should build it themselves. Instead, we have a proposal from the prestigious French space expert Jacques Blamont, writing in last week’s Space News, making the case for a new international institution to control and regulate lunar activities. He mentions the UN and the “Bretton Woods institutions” (The World Bank and IMF) as models, as well as ESA and CERN, as possible models. While CERN, as a pure science facility, has been a success, it is impossible to imagine that the other institutions he mentions are decent models for anything—especially not the UN.

It is often claimed that because of America’s military power the US always tends to seek military solutions. On the other hand, when confronted with a problem, Europe is always ready to set up a new transnational organization.

Do we really want to see the Oil-for-Food and Sex-for-Food scandals endlessly repeated in the rest of the solar system? Do the world’s tyrants really need yet another platform? Do the unaccountable, corrupt, incompetent self-aggrandizing international bureaucrats require even more money and power than they already have? Blamont says that the “exact form of cooperation will require breaking new ground.” He’s right about that: a new international authority with powers similar to those the EU exercises over its members would require breaking America’s control over its own space operations.

This is not a new idea. Several years ago NASA administrator Mike Griffin marveled at the way his foreign interlocutors were ready to instruct him on how to spend NASA’s money. It is often claimed that because of America’s military power the US always tends to seek military solutions. On the other hand, when confronted with a problem, Europe is always ready to set up a new transnational organization. The problem with Europe’s space policy experts is that they rightly see space as being one of the most factors in global power politics in the 21st century, but they lack the kind of substantial funding needed to become a major player.

There can be no denying Europe’s success in certain important niche areas like commercial space transportation, yet they have not developed any sort of comprehensive space power. They have a smattering of expertise in almost every area of space operations, except apparently in space weaponry—though that could change overnight. What they lack is a serious financial commitment that could match the roughly $64 billion the US government spends every year on civil and military space.

So naturally they want to leverage their own investments to the maximum extent possible. They have joined in several, mutually profitable partnerships with the US and with others to build up their own power. This technique has now reached its limits.

Europe’s newfound reluctance to finance Russia’s next generation of manned spacecraft is one healthy sign that they are ready to move out on their own. If ESA decides to go ahead and build a European manned system this will be a sign that they want to control their own destiny. Why therefore should they want to grab authority over the US?

To imagine, as Blamont does, that the motivation for the current lunar exploration programs is “obviously not science but prestige” misses the point. Prestige and science are factors, but the most important factor is position. The Moon’s position as an accessible surface with a small gravity well two days travel from Earth makes it a critical military and eventually economic place in the solar system, and whoever has an operating base there will be able to profit from the ongoing expansion of humanity beyond this planet.

This is not a question of 20th century thinking versus 21st century thinking, or even the kind of 17th century Colbertist thinking we see in so much of the French and European space industry. This is a question of physical resources and where they are located. Space solar power satellites will be much easier to build using lunar minerals processed in situ than if they were built on the Earth’s surface and launched directly into place.

Competition, like evolution, is inherently unstable. To try to confine it within a bureaucracy, even one with superhuman levels of honesty and efficiency, is a recipe for failure and frustration.

The real argument is over whose values will ultimately prevail in the competition to build a new spacefaring civilization. Jacques Blamont and the EU want their values to predominate. In America we have our own ideas and others, such as China, will want to bring their ideas into play. It would be wrong for the next President or for any other world leader to shut his or her national values out of the new race for space in favor of some new cartel-style arrangement.

Competition, like evolution, is inherently unstable. To try to confine it within a bureaucracy, even one with superhuman levels of honesty and efficiency, is a recipe for failure and frustration. The resources that humanity needs in the 21st century are out there. The process by which they are harvested and delivered to paying customers on Earth is going to be messy. Setting up a new transnational institution is just going to make the process slower, less efficient, less transparent and less liberal (in almost every sense of term).

The news of the Falcon 1’s successful launch from Kwajalein Sunday night shows just how powerful the free enterprise system can be. Why should anyone in America accept the idea that a European straightjacket is a suitable garment for our next moves into the cosmos?


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