To many, the outward expansion of humanity into the cosmos is inevitable. It seems that a portion of our population is (and has always been) innately possessed of a drive toward the frontier, wherever that might be at the time…
The Antarctic exploration ship Endurance locked in ice, 1915. (Credit: The Royal Collection/2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)
Whether venturing to the New World, exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth’s poles, probing the abyssal oceanic depths, or rocketing our way to the Moon – there have always been people who have emerged with the deep-seated desire to expand our horizons. The exercise reaps clear benefits to our cultures, our societies, and our knowledge of the universe at large, and some part of our ancient psyche knows it. As Johannes Kepler eloquently put it (nearly four centuries ago!):
“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”
Clearly, the problem with exploration hasn’t historically been finding the desire to explore. It’s been finding the commercial incentive.
Human exploration is necessarily expensive; by definition it is set away from convenience, requiring feats of transportation and logistics no matter the era. Even more than survival on the frontier, history has shown that convincing financiers that the endeavor is a worthwhile (and often, also potentially lucrative) one has been an explorer’s paramount challenge.
So sits the human exploration of space today – idling on the runway. Technologically, we are capable of venturing outward, well beyond the Earth. Many of the risks of the space environment are now (at least partially) known, and we’ve nearly completed the first-order exploration of all of the major bodies of the Solar System.
We’re ready to start getting out there. We just need to find an economically-compelling reason to get out there.
Space tourism will help further the technology needed to expand our footprint into space, but such trips will be initially limited to those seeking largely intangible returns. And, while there are fairly obvious economic and environmental benefits to utilizing extraterrestrial resources, we lack the infrastructure to justify the incredible expense of making a practical go of it. We need something with a narrower field of view – something to help us build the first waystations that will open the doors to commerce off-world.
As it so happens, the space policy think tank Space Settlement Institute has developed such a plan. -And it just might work. Called the “Space Settlement Initiative,” it floats the idea (so-to-speak) of turning percieved international space law on its head by challenging the U.S. Congress to recognize the ownership of land on the Moon and Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) by those who “settle” it (read: physically visit and claim). This ownership, in turn, could be bought and sold on Earth.
View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972. (Credit: NASA)
Suddenly, extraterrestrial commerce is in full swing, with lunar and Martian land being optioned, sold, and traded just as mineral rights attached to land a person has never seen are regularly incorporated into his or her investment portfolio. Now, the business model for building the initial waystations and transportation systems to Low Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the lunar surface is baited with the very real return of saleable physical property.
Various uses have been proposed for extraterrestrial land, from ecosystem lifeboats and knowledge repositories to low-gravity retirement communities. Were the Space Settlement Institute’s plan to be adopted and a pioneer to venture out and stake a claim, each of these uses would suddenly have potentially real locations with a demonstrated means of transportation.
-And as we know, it’s a short period of time between when new locations show up on our maps and when we find a way to reach them.
I’m totally jazzed by this idea. It seems to me that all the plan needs in order to gain traction is steady promotion to Congressional leaders, policy-makers, potential venture capitalists, and the public. Who knows? If they’re right, perhaps the next Rockefeller will be made in the pursuit of lunar real-estate.
Food for thought.