Galactic I trademark Jim Davidson

The Iconoclast in Space

Occasional essays on significant topics from the Iconoclast's perspective.

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Criteria in Space

The essay which follows attempts to develop a set of necessary, sufficient, and desirable criteria for the goal of opening the space frontier. Other attempts in this vein seem to have been trivialized by dogma and political claptrap.

A certain organization has made much of its so-called "Frontier Enabling Test." Yet this organization has apparently used this test to justify its support for everything from the international space station program to various multi-billion dollar efforts evincing a design to limit further the competition for space transportation services. Certainly, trusting any one organization, not built on the most principled of foundations, to determine and apply criteria for opening the space frontier is a speculative proposition at this time. Until the frontier is open, we should seek a multiplicity of approaches; no one true path has been anointed. In all likelihood, when the frontier is open we will look back and note that a variety of endeavors and factors were essential to its conquest.

In analyzing the criteria for meeting the goal of opening the space frontier, we should examine three categories: necessary conditions, being those conditions which are essential for the objective; sufficient conditions, being those which, once met, should soon see the frontier open; and desirable or preferred conditions, being those conditions which not only enhance the opening of the frontier in terms of speed or robustness, but also tend to enhance other aspects of life.

Cheap access to space, for all that it has been trumpeted as the cause celebre of the space movement, is a desirable condition. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for opening the space frontier. Just as access to the New World was once quite dear in terms of treasure, space may remain out of reach for many purses for some time. In the face of expensive access to space, we have seen thousands of satellites launched to orbit, doing yeoman's work in a host of industries. The supply of space transportation is not the only, nor is it even the most essential condition to be addressed. Given adequate economic incentives, the space frontier will be opened even in the face of expensive access costs. Traditionally, the opening of a new frontier drives down the cost of access to that frontier, not the other way around.

If the much vaunted "CATS" is not a necessary or sufficient condition, what criteria might we more profitably examine? What follows is an analysis of five conditions, each expressed as a necessary, as a sufficient, and as a preferred condition.

Necessary Conditions

  1. Markets for space activities must exist.
  2. Mechanisms for de facto property acquisition must exist.
  3. Government involvement must be consistent and reasonably predictable.
  4. Investor confidence in the space frontier market must exist.
  5. Economic motives for space development must be acceptable.

Markets for space activities do exist, especially in telecommunications. Unfortunately, in Earth remote sensing, weather observation, technology demonstration, and space environment research, significant markets are stifled by government involvement. Each of these markets represents a significant opportunity for private enterprise, and each is being distorted in the most detrimental ways imaginable by governments bent on control. Privatizing and commercializing these markets is necessary to their healthy development. Previous efforts to do so have been perfunctory at best, and have tended in most instances to perpetuate the monopolistic influence of bad government.

Communications satellites represent an expanding market. As the geosynchronous orbit becomes increasingly crowded, greater interest has been focused recently on the opportunities for constellations of low Earth orbit communications satellites. A very large number of competitors each operating a major network of dozens of satellites is a near term probability, with the Iridium constellation and others beginning to be launched.

The market for space tourism is also very large. In the United States, this market has again been dominated by government intervention. An effort by this author to establish a space travel service company was thoroughly demolished on orders of the National Space Council. Space tourism on the US Space Shuttle has been negligible, limited to junketing Senators and Congressmen, foreign princes and dignitaries, and the occasional schoolteacher.

Expressed as a sufficient condition, the markets for space activities must exceed a certain level, perhaps $500 billion to $1 trillion per year, in order to sustain a high level of interest in opening the space frontier to economic activity. Additional research into the real level of in-space activity and the extent of markets therefor is needed in order to establish the precise definition of this sufficient condition.

As a preferred condition, markets should be extremely large. The greater the market for space activities, the more likely the frontier will be opened in a sustained fashion. The early market for Spanish access to the New World revolved around government explorations, land grants for minor nobility and government functionaries, the enslavement of the native populations for agriculture and mining, and the extraction of gold and silver to pay off Spain's war debts to the Rothschilds and other banking interests. A far more sustainable English approach to the new frontier is to be found in New England and Virginia, where cash crops, shipping, timber, and the triangle trade created a lasting economy.

ship from Age of Reconaissance Whereas the Spanish approach has produced a number of recently developing nations, it led to no great prominence for either Spain or the nations arising from its colonial territories. The Spanish approach was barely adequate to opening the frontier, but not effective at creating economic opportunity. Ultimately, this failure led to the demise of Spain as a world power and to much of the internal chaos which has dominated the successors to its colonies.

England, on the other hand, remains one of the great world powers, to this day. While its Empire has faltered and been sold down the river, it remains a dominant force. England, aka Great Britain, has a world class navy, a nuclear force, and a veto on the United Nations Security Council.

Two of its New World colonies are also very prominent on the world stage. Both the United States and Canada are significant world powers, with the US having a dominant navy, nuclear forces to rival any comers, and a veto on the UN Security Council. By any measure, England and the successor nations to her colonies are triumphant on the world stage. Even Jamaica stands head and shoulders above her Spanish counterparts in the Caribbean, making Cuba look like a booger.

It would be a grievous error to take the Spanish approach to opening the space frontier. More than likely, given the absence of native populations to enslave, that approach is untenable from the word "go." A market-based approach is quite possibly the only feasible way to open the space frontier.

Property Rights
It is necessary for de facto property acquisition to exist in order for any frontier to be open. While the ownership of spacecraft launched from Earth is not in doubt under the present regime, there is no governing authority for the acquisition of space resources as private property. While that is not a preventive factor, it is also not a motivator. Investors have expressed doubt about ventures that involve exploring or acquiring the Moon, Mars, the asteroids and other planetary bodies precisely because they are concerned about the practical methods for acquiring and maintaining ownership of these resources.

Accordingly, the only significant market for space activities which has thus far been developed is one which depends only on the ownership of spacecraft in Earth orbit. Recent events have demonstrated that water and other essential resources are available on the Moon and on Mars in plentiful abundance. Already, we have demonstrated (circa 1969) the technological means necessary to establish human operations on the surface of the Moon. Any number of conceptual proofs for establishing human activities on Mars have been established in considerable detail.

Therefore, it only remains to demonstrate that people can go to the Moon or Mars and acquire property thereon. The economics of the situation will then take over, and the frontier will spring open, releasing the flood waters of colonization.

To express this condition in its sufficient form, enough people must be satisfied by and enthusiastic about exploiting the availability of de facto property rights. Whether a sufficient number of people is a few thousand or a few million, at the present time essentially no one is satisfied with the prospect of obtaining property on any celestial body. Accordingly, it may require dismantling the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to fulfill this condition to its sufficiency.

As a matter of preference, property rights in space should be ubiquitous. There should be no more question about buying and selling real estate on the Moon than there is here on Earth. Ownership should be available in perpetuity, with no process of eminent domain for any purpose.

Consistent Government Policy
The bane of the space industry is government. When government changes its dictates, markets collapse, companies dissolve, and everyone looks around for a way to get beyond the new hurdles. Government is bad enough; inconsistent government policy is a nightmare for business.

For example, Orbital Sciences Corporation was founded with the idea that a Transfer Orbit Stage to take communications satellites from shuttle orbit altitude out to geosynchronous would be useful to a number of customers. The same stage could also be used to propel a number of spacecraft to other orbits, as well.

Then the Challenger exploded, proving NASA's ineptitude, negligence, and willful disregard for human life. President Reagan recognized that the shuttle was inadequate, and a two-plus year stand down was put into effect. Orders for the Transfer Orbit Stage never materialized. Subsequently, President Reagan took the important step of banning commercial satellites from the shuttle. Suddenly, the market for the Transfer Orbit Stage evaporated, too.

Orbital Sciences cast about for other markets. They examined small satellite systems for communications and other applications, correctly anticipating a major market trend. When they found that the available launchers for small satellites made some of the economics doubtful, they set about to build the Pegasus launch vehicle.

By converting the Transfer Orbit Stage to work with the Titan launch vehicle, Orbital Sciences salvaged some of that business opportunity. After their success with the first Pegasus launch, they went public. Getting into launch services in a big way, they acquired the suborbital launch services company Space Data.

Other companies dependent on the shuttle for launch services shifted their business to Arianespace. Suddenly, the Ariane was carrying more than half the world's commercial satellites into orbit. Market dominance shifted permanently away from the United States, due in large part to the original, inept shuttle policy. Making the shuttle the only US launch vehicle, shutting down the expendable launch vehicle production lines, and sabotaging the efforts of Truax, Hudson, Hannah, and other space transportation entrepreneurs was NASA's idea of a good approach. NASA proved its policy failure with Challenger and the aftermath thereof. The loss to American industry is measured in billions of dollars.

Therefore, it is necessary that government involvement in the space arena be consistent. Whatever obstacles that governments place in the way of industry will be bounced over and around. As Thoreau notes in Civil Disobedience, "Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way; and, if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of their actions, and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads."

The problem arises, and is magnified in an emerging industry, when the government moves the obstacles around too frequently. In America, that seems to be the case every two years or less as Congress shifts about its political winds, blowing ill fortune wherever it turns.

Galactic I trademark Jim Davidson
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