On July 8, I tuned in to an online briefing on space settlement offered by the Beyond Earth Institute, a self-described “think tank for policymakers” offering “recommendations to Accelerate the establishment of communities in space.” The Beyond Earth (BE) “team” consists of six white men and one white woman. There is no information on the BE web site about funding sources. Sometimes I wonder whether I should keep drawing attention to such advocacy efforts. But then again, this outfit claims to be offering recommendations to the government. I realize that recommendations can be made and not heard, but what I worry about is that this outfit’s recommendations are being heard. So, here goes.
BE team member Steve Wolfe helped to write the 1988 Space Settlement Act. He said at the briefing that in 1988 it was “interesting” to consider space settlements, but now it’s “imperative.” He noted that Elon Musk wants to bring “all Earth life” to other planets.
My own observations are that 1) Earth life has evolved to live on Earth; 2) as far as I can tell, Musk plans to take people into space who can pay him; and 3) what is imperative is that we do everything we can to keep Earth livable for the vast majority of humans who cannot afford to, or otherwise don’t want to, live in space.
BE team member Tom Marotta, an analyst with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, reported on BE’s policy recommendations, which he described as “data-driven, non-partisan,” and based on interviews with seven space policy “thought leaders. ” I’m familiar with the thinking of all seven. They are all like-minded: pro-settlement, pro-space mining, pro-corporate, neoliberal/libertarian.
Here’s a brief summary of BE’s pro-settlement policy recommendations:
- The U.S. must revamp arms control/export-control regimes. (My view on this point: this step is to free up corporations to do what they want to do, with whomever they want to do it with, unhindered).
- The international space community should establish voluntary guidelines for behavior in space. Don’t wait for governments to do it. (My view on this point: Governments are a big part of the international community….). Let industry self-regulate. (My view: Yeah, like that’s gonna work.)
- The U.S. should establish a whole-of-government agreement on establishing communities in space. (My view: Really? The entire U.S. government should be working on this goal, which is not supported by taxpayers?)
Mike Gold, currently head of NASA’s Office of Interagency and International Affairs, discussed NASA’s so-called “Artemis accords” at the briefing – which he described as “principles for a safe, peaceful and prosperous future” in space. (I have a question: prosperous for whom?) “We” think the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the right way to go in establishing policy: no requirements, no regulations, just principles. (Interesting characterization of the OST….)
Laura Montgomery, former general counsel with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said the Artemis accords need tweaking. “From a business perspective,” full transparency and sharing of data, as called for in the accords, “might have to be limited.” Interoperability should not be required for the private sector. She said the U.S. government should not mandate standards for the private sector – let’s not tie industry’s hands. She also said the Artemis accords’ recognition of rights to space resource extraction “is a gem,” noting that a 2015 U.S. law recognizes U.S. rights to extraterrestrial resources. (My note: So, the principle here is those who get there first get the most.)
Montgomery said the Artemis accords are in harmony with the Outer Space Treaty. Article II of the treaty prohibits national appropriation of space resources but is silent on corporate appropriation. Thus, commercial extraterrestrial property ownership is okay according to Article II, she said. The Artemis accords are the first step toward commercial property rights in space. She noted that if nations establish a practice over time, it can become customary international law.
Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Foundation, said at the briefing, “There’s a rather significant pent-up enthusiasm” for the next step in space exploration: space mining. (My observation: I am not feeling any pent-up enthusiasm for space mining.) He’s a consultant to the Duchy of Luxembourg on space mining, and he said Luxembourg is already working with China and Russia on space mining. “Informal protocols” for operations in space could be valuable to private-sector entities.
Gold said, “I’m in violent agreement” with Montgomery and Worden. Very few nations would object to private-sector space resource extraction, “I hope… Precedent’s important…. It’s important that we lead by example…. We have a soft-power influence…if we stick to our values [and] the rule of law.”
In June 2019, the National Space Society held a policy forum on space settlement, chaired by Steve Wolfe. According to the website for this forum, “The settlement of space is closer than many believe; therefore, it is not too early to have a sober discussion about policies that could support and possibly stimulate space settlement development.”
I have been listening to advocates for space settlement since 1983. I don’t think it’s a good idea, I don’t think it will happen in the foreseeable future, and I don’t think it will benefit the vast majority of humanity left here on Earth. Advocates tend to talk about extending human society or human civilization into space – but human society, human civilization, are not monolithic entities. Earth hosts a multitude of human societies, civilizations, that are not like-minded, that do not share the same values and morals. As I’ve said many times before, advocacy for space settlement is very Western-centric.
As to commercial development of space, I also have been listening to advocates since 1983. I will note that in congressional testimony in 2018, NASA’s inspector general observed, “NASA’s current plan to privatize the [International Space Station] remains a controversial and highly debatable proposition, particularly with regard to the feasibility of fostering increased commercial activity in low Earth orbit. Specifically, it is questionable whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business independent of significant Government funding.”
Emphasis added. If NASA has not been able to succeed in “commercializing” the ISS, why should we believe that NASA – or any other entity in the U.S. government – can, or should, “commercialize” outer space? Profitable space companies – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, etc. – have built their businesses on government subsidies and government contracts. Even Jeff Bezos – supposedly now the richest person in the world – is building his space company Blue Origin with government contracts. From where I stand, what’s going on in the space arena is more like business as usual than “a new era.”