Space is officially back in. Not only did the new entry in the “Star Wars” series become the fastest movie to ever gross $1 billion dollars globally, but a slew of other movies revolving around the topic of space exploration have been well received by both critics and audiences over the past couple of years, including “Gravity” in 2013, “Interstellar” in 2014, and “The Martian” in 2015.
Alas, as with most trends, this one is also political. NASA has been pushing for more attention to be paid to space exploration for quite some time now, and found an opportunity to do so in the previously-mentioned Matt Damon’s film “The Martian”. NASA provided the movie’s creators with in-depth technical help in creating the movie, and, in exchange, they have used it to promote their own work. Why? Simple: more people interested in space means more interest in NASA, which can translate into greater funding.
Shed a Tear For NASA
A government agency seeking to increase its funding in this way is certainly a bit disturbing, but in this case, we can rest knowing that at least their cause is good. Adjusted for inflation, funding for NASA has been on a general downward trend since a spike in the early 1990s, as has their funding as a percentage of both the federal budget and the GDP. These trends are fairly baffling, because in terms of public investments, government spending on space exploration is one of the best deals you can possibly make.
As NASA likes to point out, research done in the 1970s found that every dollar spent by the government on research and development results in more than seven dollars of economic benefits over an 18-year period. The $25 billion spent on NASA (a research-intensive program) from 1959–1969 was estimated to have produced $181 billion in total economic benefits by 1987. Even if those numbers were inflated, additional research has confirmed over and over that spending money on the space program is a great economic investment.
The standard refrain claiming that we should be focusing on putting our resources to use here at home more instead of sending it off into space ignores that spending money on space-based research has enormous benefits for the U.S. economy and society as a whole. Through just the direct means of their “spinoff” technologies, NASA has been behind many modern advancements ranging from artificial limbs, safer highways, and firefighter equipment, to freeze-dried food and foam mattresses.
When looking at their indirect accomplishments, NASA’s role in shaping our modern technological environment looks even more impressive. As a matter of fact, you might not even be reading this if it not for them. As The Breakthrough Institute points out, NASA created an enormous market for microchip technology well before the personal computers became a household item, thereby helping it break into the mainstream:
In the 1960s, NASA, deep into planning for the Apollo Project, needed advanced circuits for the Saturn rocket’s onboard guidance computer. Soon, private companies were churning out massive amounts of purpose-built Apollo Guidance Computer microchips. In fact, NASA bought so many that manufacturers were able to achieve huge improvements in the production process, driving the price of the Apollo microchip down from $1000 per unit to between $20 and $30 per unit in the span of a few years.
As computers became more common in the 1960s, various agencies were buying hundreds of thousands of chips a year, virtually every microchip firms could produce. This insatiable demand for microchips rapidly and massively expanded manufacturing capacity and industrial expertise, paving the way for cheap, mass-produced microchips that could be sold to businesses and ordinary Americans, and setting the digital era in motion.
NASA does what government can when it works at its best: it uses public resources to contribute to the public good. With this in mind, it seems like reinvesting in NASA should be a key component of anyone’s plan to improve the U.S. economy. So has the renewed cultural focus on space resulted in political pressure to do just that? Not really. However, NASA’s research has paved the way for a new development that is receiving legislative attention: private space exploration.
Gold-Plated Rocket Ships
The SPACE Act of 2015 passed through both the House and the Senate with a large numbers of supporters, and was signed into law by President Obama on November 25th. This bipartisan legislation received little media attention, but contains incentives to encourage new space exploration projects. Good news, right? Maybe not.
The SPACE Act sets up a framework for for-profit space exploration. Under the new law, any resources found by a private company on an asteroid “are the property of the entity that obtained such resources, which shall be entitled to all property rights thereto, consistent with applicable provisions of Federal law and existing international obligations.” Space is now a game of finders-keepers.
This will inevitably be a great encouragement for private space companies: they’ve just been granted exclusive access over any natural resources they discover, and the level of resources we’re talking about here are unfathomable. To measure this, we can look at the website Asterank, which keeps track of asteroids and the potential value of the resources on them. According to the website, one asteroid named 162173 Ryugu will make a close pass (36.8 million miles) by Earth this Summer, on July 24th. The website estimates that it is worth $95 billion dollars, and the profit from mining it would be just over $34.5 billion.
In the grand scheme of things, however, Ryugu is not even a big prize. Asterank counts over 500 asteroids worth more than $100 trillion, an amount of money greater than the entire world economy. One of them, 3200 Phaethon, will be making a close pass by us this September. Another, the 5143 Heracles, will pass in November.
Imagine that just one company only ever manages to mine just one of these asteroids, and they only manage to recover 10 percent of its value in the form of profit. Even then, that company would have control of $10 trillion dollars. There is no historical precedent of a private company having that type of power. Imagine the enormous control over the government that oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron already have with a combined value of just over a half trillion. Any company that controls the resources on these asteroids controls society. That is not a power to be delegated to the undemocratic and unaccountable private sector.
Exploiting these natural resources has the potential to benefit the planet greatly. Not only could we cease environmentally-harmful extraction here, where people are living, but we could also expand our standard of living in ways we can not even currently imagine. The idea of one asteroid having enough potential value to double the amount of wealth on Earth is astonishing. But while we are thinking about the future, we should also take a second to think about it more critically: who should benefit most from this new-found wealth? Why should private corporations be handed control not only of space, but of our world too?
Property In Space
This legislation raises extremely significant questions about a number of things, including nothing less than the nature of property itself. Right now, no one “owns” space. Outer space exists largely as a “commons”, a resource that is cooperatively used by a multitude of different parties but owned by none. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, agreed to by America and the majority of the world, states that:
The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind… Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
However, as international law expert Timothy J. Nelson notes, this is sometimes interpreted only as a rejection of national claims of territory, not of resources. The failure of a later treaty which sought to clarify the issue left us where we are today, with “the legal status of mining in remote, extra-national areas such as outer space… opaque, even contentious.” What the SPACE Act, does, however, is to go ahead anyways. By passing the law, America has announced that its businesses can, in fact, establish outer space resources as their property.
This should raise a number of deep, substantial questions about the nature of property. Libertarian Scholar George H. Smith notes that there have, historically, been two views of the commons: the “negative” view is that the commons belong to no one, and, thus, anyone can claim them as their property. This is the view that the SPACE Act tacitly supports. The “positive” view, on the other hand, says that the commons belong to no one, and, thus, they belong to everyone collectively. Therefore, to claim private property rights over the commons is effectively robbery: you are taking a resource that was previously available to everyone and preventing them from using it.
Smith notes that John Locke, perhaps the most famous classical Enlightenment thinker, took a negative view of the commons, and thus found private property quite easy to justify. Many other thinkers of the time, however, did not share this view. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, famously criticized property as the root cause of inequality:
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
What the government does when it recognizes property rights is to legitimize the claim of “This is mine,” and then to use government power to enforce it. Property rights, in that sense, are a government subsidy to the “owners” of said property, granting them government protection in the form of the police and the courts. In the case of the SPACE Act, the government is granting this subsidy to private space exploration companies in order to encourage them to seek out new resources and bring them back for our use. Doing so will almost surely work in providing that incentive, but it will also mean handing over ownership of common goods to a small number of hands.
The problem here is similar to the problem with patents: the government succeeds in encouraging private enterprise to discover new resources (asteroid resources in this case, information in the case of patents) by expanding property rights, but it does so by giving the private company an ability to profit off of the resource more than their work calls for. To be sure, the companies will take the risk and provide the hard work necessary to acquire the resources, but what they will ultimately be doing is using technology made possible by taxpayer money to profit from resources they did nothing to create.
Uncovering new wealth on asteroids will be beneficial for all, but the SPACE Act’s expansion of property rights will result in an extremely unequal distribution of it. Under the law, those who will benefit the most from natural resources will be those with the most start-up capital available to fund exploration. Billions or even trillions of dollars will be transferred from nature into the hands of the wealthy simply because they had more money to spend in the first place. This law will make sure that space exploration makes the rich richer.
So how do we encourage space exploration and all of the benefits it promises without making the deal a recipe for inequality? The easiest way to do so is to reinvest in public space travel. For now, this means funding NASA far better so as to lay the groundwork to make all of this possible. But in the future, we should look beyond national borders to treat space like the common heritage that it is.
Imagine, if you will, a self-funded global space exploration program. Under international authority and with international funding, this program finances trips to recover resources from asteroids, sells them at market value, and then distributes the revenue it receives from doing so across the world as a matter of public ownership. Or, maybe, the UN could make land grants to companies or countries that wish to mine and then allow them to keep a small portion of the profits, while the rest are distributed globally. The point is that there a number of ways to encourage space exploration that don’t involve handing such enormous power over to private corporations.
After mining, the matters of distribution are open to debate. One idea that comes to mind is a global version of a citizen’s dividend. The idea behind such a policy is that money from publicly-owned natural resources should be distributed to every person in order to provide them with a basic guaranteed income.
Democratic Socialist Scholar Gar Alperovitz has several times pointed out that Alaska has exactly that in the form of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which divides up the money earned from the state’s oil and mineral resources among every citizen. The amount citizens recieved for 2015 was worth $2,072. Alternatively, Alperovitz also notes that other conservative states, like Texas and Wyoming, maintain funds to use money from natural resource extraction to help pay for government programs without having to tax citizens as much. That is another option as well.
All of this sounds utopian right now. But remember, we are already talking about hundreds of trillions of dollars of new resources that could realistically become available to us in the future. The fact that the SPACE Act was passed in the first place serves as a reminder that we’re talking about scenarios that could one day be our reality.
When faced with such enormous potential wealth, the only real question we must ask is this: how do we want it distributed? Do we want the primary beneficiaries of these resources to be determined by how rich they are or where they live? The SPACE Act is a step towards that direction. Let’s imagine a brighter future.
Originally published at theodysseyonline.com on January 4, 2016.