Finding the incentive to settle space…

19 05 2011

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.

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Congress strikes back: The REAL Space Act

3 05 2011

U.S. Congressman Bill Posey is at it again, this time indirectly taking aim at President Obama’s new commercial space initiative.  With a cohort of cosponsors, Posey has introduced a new bill, (H.R. 1641,) entitled, “REasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” a.k.a., the “REAL Space Act.” 

It’s aim?  To send us back to the moon in a decade – this time to stay.

In addition to the traditional “preaching to the choir” statement about the necessity of returning to the Moon from a planetary science and space exploration logistics perspective, (which I endorse wholeheartedly,) the bill also makes a powerful case from a number of other standpoints: 

  • Legally, it outlines that the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses all made a return to the Moon an integral priority of NASA’s mission, which the 112th Congress has a mandate to continue.
  • Domestically, it claims that a sustained human lunar presence (read: moon base) would inspire a new generation of Americans to study math and science while stimulating technical, scientific, and medical advances that are rich with applications back here on Earth.
  • Internationally (and politically), the bill also states that because China and Russia understand the importance of a lunar presence and have announced their intentions to colonize the Moon, we have a pressing strategic impetus to return ourselves. 

Now, we don’t yet know how this bill will fare.  In all likelihood, any plan to return to the Moon would be in direct funding competition with NASA’s push to help develop a commercial space transportation system.  At this point, we have to hurry up and wait to see if NewSpace vs. Lunar turns into anything other than a glancing blow.

As for me?  I’d prefer we do both, really.  (It’s hard for me not to notice that doing so would be a drop in the bucket compared to the annual defense budget expenditures.)








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