The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar base illustration
There may be better ways to kickstart lunar colonization than withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty. (credit: NASA)

A better way to promote space settlement in our lifetimes

I’d like to commend Sam Dinkin for his excellent recent article (See “US public land policy and applications for the Moon and Mars”, The Space Review, July 26, 2004.) Mr. Dinkin is certainly correct that land ownership could, and should, be “used to pursue the goal of getting settlers to the frontier as quickly as possible to help develop and secure it.” But, unfortunately, there are several serious flaws in his plan to have the US auction off lunar land for it’s own financial benefit.

First, there is not much chance it could raise revenue for the US. Mr. Dinkin says: “The United States should commence international negotiations to amend the 1967 Treaty of Outer Space or withdraw from it to make such auctions possible” as if that were a realistic possibility. It isn’t.

Amending the treaty would require the cooperation of the rest of the world. Even our closest allies would refuse in fury.

Among other things, the Outer Space Treaty (and several other international agreements) clearly prohibit any claims of national sovereignty on the Moon or Mars, etc. Therefore no nation can claim, grant or sell land in outer space. I’ve spent two decades researching this subject and can assure you there is not one expert out there who thinks there is any chance the US would ever withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty, because it has so many good features, like banning nuclear weapons in space.

Amending the treaty would require the cooperation of the rest of the world. Can you imagine the reaction of other nations when the US says “please amend the treaty so we, the US, can claim the Moon and auction off the Moon’s land for our own financial benefit”? Even our closest allies would refuse in fury. If we did withdraw and attempted to auction the land, not another nation on Earth would recognize our lunar land deeds as valid.

Besides, when in history has it ever been possible to claim and sell land that you can’t even occupy and use? When the US auctioned the land out west, it had explored it and clearly did already own it. Even if the Outer Space Treaty could magically be made to go away, the US still would have no right to that land until and unless it went up and settled it—which would cost scores, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars the US taxpayers are clearly not willing to invest.

Frankly, it is fortunate that the US can’t just claim and dispose of the Moon, because, if we could claim it you can be sure the profitable land would be diverted to the politically connected, who would never spend another dime trying to build a transport system. They would just sit back on their deeds, waiting to charge anyone who did eventually develop such a transport system for using “their land”.

Again, the real problem is there is currently no way to get to the Moon and occupy the land to be sold. Developing such transport would be horribly expensive, and nowhere near profitable as things now stand. Auctioning off the land now just increases the difficulty and expense involved in ever developing such transport.

On one point, Mr. Dinkin and I strongly disagree. He says “We do not have an urgent need for colonization so there is no compelling reason to reduce revenues from land sales below what speculators would pay.” I believe humanity certainly does have an urgent need to open the space frontier to settlement as soon as possible. Hopefully in our lifetimes. Therefore, we should structure a land ownership regime that encourages settlement, not one that tries to milk it for revenue. We want to use land ownership to provide a financial incentive for developing space transportation and opening the frontier for the benefit of all, not make it still more expensive than it already is.

My suggestion is the Space Settlement Initiative, which can be found in detail at http://SpaceSettlement.Org/. In essence it says: To open the space frontier in our lifetime, we must get private enterprise to invest billions in space development, now! The last three decades prove government is not going to do it for us. The only way to interest investors in privately funded space settlement is to make settlement potentially very profitable!

The only way to interest investors in privately funded space settlement is to make settlement potentially very profitable.

The most potentially valuable asset on the Moon and Mars is the land itself, as real estate. Someday in the future, once there is a true permanent settlement, regular commercial access, and a system of space property rights, lunar and martian real estate will acquire a multi-billion dollar value. While traditional land grants similar to those used by the US government to develop the old West are not possible in space because national ownership of land is forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty, legislation could be enacted to achieve the same ends using the related concept of “land claim recognition” for private land ownership, which is not prohibited by that treaty.

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 US government. Recognition means the government would acquiesce to, or decide not to contest, the claim, but not assume any sovereignty over it.

In other words, we need to get the US to promise, in advance, that, when and if anyone succeeds in establishing a permanent, privately funded space settlement and space line, US courts will accept the settlement’s claim to ownership of a substantial share of that land. That would allow the settlement to then sell deeds to their lunar land back on Earth. They could sell to those who intend to book passage on the settlement’s ships and use their land, but also to the much, much larger market of land speculators and investors who hope to make a profit on lunar land deeds without ever, themselves, leaving Earth. At that point, one of Mr. Dinkin’s auctions might well be realistic.

The key differences between the Space Settlement Initiative and Mr. Dinkin’s plan are that:

  1. the money raised would go to reward the successful opening of the frontier for all, not into the pockets of a bureaucracy that had done nothing to earn it, and
  2. it gets around the Outer Space Treaty, rather than requiring withdrawal or amendment.

The initiative’s web site discusses how and why that would work, especially the legalities and the economics. It includes a first draft of appropriate legislation, and a Q&A with the answers to 25 questions about the Space Settlement Initiative.

The recent President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, the Aldridge Commission, recognized the problem. Recommendation 5-2 in the Commission’s report says:

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, and
  • 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 Congress 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 Congress could provide such an incentive 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.

The Space Settlement Institute is about to start a serious effort to find a Congressional sponsor for legislation to implement the Commission’s Recommendation 5.2 We’d appreciate all the support we could get.