11 February 2022

Shoot for the moon: how to give humanity a stake in space

By Rebecca Lowe

It seems as if you can read about space progress every day. If you’re a nerd like me, you’ve probably even watched some of it happen in real time: amazing moments, like the recent launch of the James Webb telescope.

But what does all this actually mean for the shared prospects of people across our planet? One thing’s for sure. In terms of ‘skin in the game’, most of it means something tangible only for a very small set of very rich people. Of course, this ignores the bigger picture. Beyond the immense intrinsic value of new knowledge gained about the universe, a crucial feature of technological progress is that efficiency savings drive down costs, and open up opportunities much more widely.

The first crewed New Shepard flight last summer was notable not only for sending a Dutch teenager and the aviation legend Wally Funk into space, alongside billionaire Jeff Bezos. It was also notable for looking so ordinary. As you watched them head up the metal stairs and along the walkways, before seeing them strapped into their seats, you could almost be forgiven for thinking they were taking a standard domestic flight. The launch’s relatively low-tech look (which obviously belied astonishingly high-tech capacity) was portentous of the dawning age of the democratisation of space travel.

But what can we do, whilst waiting for a seat on a rocket? There must be other ways to get involved in space progress. What about talk of the fluctuating asteroid mining market, for instance? Are there ways we can own something up there? A bit of the moon, maybe? If not to visit yet, then for investment purposes? The short answer is: no.

Sixty years since Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit our planet, and John F. Kennedy spoke of the need to institute the rule of law to ‘man’s new domain’, property rights in space remain up for debate. But recent developments suggest this can’t and won’t remain the case for long.

The ‘national appropriation’ of space – or at least its physical domain – is outlawed by long-standing international treaty. Yet problems stemming from the idealism of the international approach, alongside various nations’ unilateral shifts of attitude and practice – as well as growing demands from pioneering firms and individuals to shift away from a national focus – leave this framework unfit for purpose.

Meanwhile, debate rages about the property-related injustices of the past, here on Earth.

Debates about the actions of our forebears, relating to the acquisition of property, the distribution of access to resources, and the colonisation of areas already serving as the livelihood and homes of indigenous peoples. Debates about the future of Earth, too, and how we should act now if we are to conserve our planet. These matters remind us of the costs that property rights regimes can impose, and the importance of ensuring that legal claims to ownership are also morally justified.

As technological advancement further opens our horizons, therefore, we have a one-time chance to get matters of property right, this time, from the off. If we care about this — as people who live not only on Earth, but also within the wider universe — then we need to think hard now.

That’s why I’m grateful that the Adam Smith Institute has given me the opportunity to bring together my nerdy love of space with my academic interest in moral property rights. A paper I’ve written for them, published today, addresses the stagnating situation. It argues that a clear, morally-justified, and efficient system for assigning and governing property rights in space would present vast benefits.

These benefits include serious financial rewards for those becoming owners under such a system, and for the millions of other direct and indirect beneficiaries of space ownerships. There’s also the provision of valuable incentives for the responsible stewardship of space, alongside opportunities for scientific discovery, democratised space exploration, and much more. The establishment of such a system is long overdue.

So, my paper sets out a framework to enable individuals to acquire and hold plots of moon land, in such a way that will benefit them, and humankind, whilst acknowledging the value of conservation. Moreover, the system works to increase the number of individuals who are able to compete for usage rights to these plots. This is in recognition of how it seems wrong (and a missed opportunity, all round) to prevent those few individuals who are currently able to acquire plots from doing so. But how it also seems wrong if their acquisition effectively precludes others from ever being able to do so themselves.

Of course, I’m not suggesting my framework is the only way forward. Or even that it removes all the current barriers to space ownership. But I hope it might be a small first step that leads, one day, to a giant leap for us all.

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Rebecca Lowe is a consultant on political and economic research issues, and former director of the think tank FREER; she has just finished writing a PhD on moral property rights.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.