Why has space exploration ground to a virtual halt? The primary reason is the expense, a problem that will not get any better as the countries of the western world, weighed down by budget deficits, find it harder and harder to fund space exploration. The western world is wasting too much money on the welfare state to fund a flight to Mars.
Some emerging countries like China may fund space exploration; after all, that’s one way for a new power to raise its status in the international community, but we need alternatives to the public funding if we want vigorous space exploration to continue.
In “Homesteading the Final Frontier: A Practical Proposal for Securing Property Rights in Space” Rand Simberg, writing for the libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, points out that one of the chief problems holding back the exploration of space is the lack of property rights.
“Many believe that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty implicitly prohibits private property in outer space, but under another conceivable interpretation, it only prohibits declarations of national sovereignty. A proposed law requiring the United States to recognize land claims off planet under specified conditions offers the possibility of legal, tradable land titles, allowing the land to be used as loan collateral or an asset to be sold to raise funds needed to develop it.
“Such a law would vitiate the 1979 Moon Treaty, which does outlaw private property claims in space, but to which the U.S. is not a signatory. This should be viewed as a feature, rather than a bug. The law would not impose any new costs on the federal government, and would likely generate significant tax revenue through title transaction fees and economic growth from new space ventures carried out by U.S. individuals and corporations. It would have great potential to kick the development of extraterrestrial resources—and perhaps even the human settlement of space—into high gear” (http://cei.org/issue-analysis/homesteading-final-frontier).
Why would a private company want to fund something as expensive as space exploration? If private companies and individuals had secure property rights in space, then they might invest in planets, moons, and asteroids: private companies and individuals could conduct everything from expensive vacations to valuable mining.
I’m not convinced that loopholes in international law alone will prompt the international community into respecting private property rights in space. America would have to lead the way and recognize private property rights, an enormously controversial position (and certainly not one that a leftwing administration such as the Obama administration is likely to take).
One strength of Simberg’s article is its recognition that property rights have motivated much of the exploration of frontiers and the development of modern civilization. Secure property rights and the opportunity to make a profit has spurred much of the good of the modern world, not government bureaucrats or politicians spending other people’s money.
It’s questionable whether this policy will be adopted because of the leftist attitude that space should be for “the common good of humankind.” I can imagine the lefty rhetoric: we can’t let the 1% settle space. Better to let it stay empty rather than let people – gasp – make a profit. Also, it will cause environmental damage if corporations mine the moon or asteroids.
The socialism of the international community tends to emphasize that the exploration of space should resemble the exploration of Antarctica, led by scientists and equally shared by the international community. The fact that this policy has led to stagnation in space exploration will not faze socialists, who never let the failure of their policies alter their prejudices.
Space is rather large, so vast that we can never transverse it, much less use even a fraction of its resources, so I’m skeptical that we need to maintain its entirety in a pristine state like Antarctica. To use property rights as an incentive to settle and explore space, the US would have to lead and possibly withdraw from some international treaties. This policy would also cost the government nothing, which would be an enormous benefit in a time of stifling budget deficits.