By Grayson Clary
This is my lunar acre. There are many like it, billions, but this one is mine. At least, it could be for a modest fee: a steal at $19.95 through Cosmic Registry, $19.99 through Lunar Embassy, or ‘prices to fit any budget’
through Lunar Registry, depending on the quality of the neighbourhood. Going by the health of the real-estate market, you would hardly guess that the last man on the Moon left in 1972.
Unfortunately, some vendors and most lawyers will tell you that these deeds lack legal force. Some will say they fly in the very face of international law, especially the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which holds that ‘the exploration and use of outer space… 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’. But if that sounds like rank anti-capitalism, don’t give up quite yet. International law rarely withstands the passion of the United States Congress, which in 2015 stood up for extraterrestrial property rights.
Over the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday – which, in the spirit of appropriation, seems appropriate – President Barack Obama signed into law the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act. It had emerged from House and Senate negotiations with surprisingly robust protections for US asteroid miners. In May, the House had gone only so far as to say that ‘[a]ny asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them’. In the Senate, commercial space legislation had moved forward without an answer to the question of property. In the strange crucible of the committee process, the bill ended up broader, bolder and more patriotic than either parent.
‘A United States citizen,’ Congress resolved, ‘engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained.’ It’s a turning point, maybe a decisive one, in a remarkable debate over the administration of celestial bodies. It’s an approach with fierce critics – writing forJacobin magazine in 2015, Nick Levine called it a vision for ‘trickle-down astronomics’ – and the stakes, if you squint, are awfully high. A small step for 535 lawmakers could amount to one giant leap for humankind.
If you hew to the right frame of mind, decisions about space policy have enormous consequences for the future of human welfare. Nick Bostrom, Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, offered a stark version of that view in a paper called ‘Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development’ (2003). By one estimate, he wrote, ‘the potential for approximately 1038 human lives is lost every century that colonisation of our local supercluster is delayed; or, equivalently, about 1029 potential human lives per second’. Suppose you accept that perspective, or for any other reason feel an urgent need to get humanity exploring space. How might a species hurry things up?