Sunday, May 9, 2010

Space Property Rights: an Interview with Alan Wasser

Below is my interview with Alan Wasser, one of the premier legal authorities on Space Property Rights. Alan has always explained complicated legal concepts in a way my business mind could understand.  Alan believes the scale of current space investment is too small. Alan's plan for "land claims recognition" legislation holds the potential to dramatically increase the size and scale of investment in space, but is such a concept politically possible?  Read on for the details…

Question: How do you think space activists should react to the Obama administration's new space policy?

Alan: I'm just hoping that, now that the President has made it official, the space activist community will finally face up to the truth. On April 15th, at the Kennedy Space Center, The President said:
"Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We've been there before. Buzz has been there."
That makes it official that, as some of us predicted long ago, the Government is NOT going to pay for a Lunar Settlement. In fact, the Government isn't even going to pay for another flags and footsteps mission to the Moon.

Maybe, someday, a flags and footsteps mission to Mars, - maybe - someday, - but the taxpayers are certainly not going to let the government pay for a settlement there either.  So, if you believe, as I do, that the settlement of space is vital for the human species, you've got an unpleasant choice to make:

Option 1: You can stay in a state of denial - insisting that, someday, somehow, Apollo will return, or a pure philanthropist godmother will magically give space to you -


Option 2: You can face the fact that the only way to make the settlement of space happen is to get the for-profit entrepreneurs interested.  Profit. The profit motivation. Capitalism. The love of money is the root of all evil. Racing to open the frontier so the winner can get even more filthy rich.

Ugh!  Disgusting. What will people think of us for suggesting such a thing?  We could only consider that as the absolute last resort.

Yup! That's what we're down to. A lot of space activists will cling to Option 1 at first, but eventually many will accept that "for profit" really is the only way the human habitat can be expanded out beyond the Earth. We're down to our absolute last choice - or nothing.  If Obama could have funded Constellation, he would have. The President's choice to speak on April 15th, income tax day, tells you why he couldn't.

National prestige once required the US to have the world's tallest building. But, eventually the public stopped measuring national prestige the old way. Government space programs, like the world's tallest buildings, have become prestige items for second and third rate powers. Apollo turns out to have been a one-shot event, specific to its era, not the template for space development. Ever since, space supporters have been trying - and failing - over and over again, to convince US taxpayers they need a robust national government space program for spin-offs, incentives for engineering education, jobs, NEO warnings, etc. etc. etc.

Instead, the voters chose more tax cuts!

So it is up to free enterprise to open the space frontier, but that can happen only when there's a potential profit from it large enough to justify the huge risks and long lead time the project requires.

Question: Are there near-term profit motives large enough to incentivize such a push into space?

Alan: The best possibility is the idea of "land claims recognition", harnessing the huge potential value of Lunar and Martian land. It’s the only thing on the Moon that is valuable enough, and the hunt for new lands has always been the driver for human exploration and settlement.

Land claims recognition legislation would commit the Earth’s nations, in advance, to allowing a true private Lunar settlement to claim and sell (to people back on Earth) a reasonable amount of Lunar real estate in the area around the base, thus giving the founders of the Moon colony a way to earn back the investment they made to establish it.

For the details of such a proposal, and its legal basis under international law, see "Space Settlements, Property Rights, and International Law: Could a Lunar Settlement Claim The Lunar Real Estate It Needs To Survive?" which was published in SMU Law School's Journal of Air Law & Commerce, the leading law journal in its field.  Or, for a less legalistic description, with the answers to frequently asked questions, try this one.

As it enacts the new approach to space development, Congress should give private entrepreneurs the hope of profit they need by passing Land Claims Recognition legislation to facilitate the transition to entrepreneurial space development (Colin's Note: see a link to draft Land Claims Recognition legislation at the end of this interview).  If enacted, such legislation would spark a new, privately-funded commercial space race to settle the Moon and Mars, making the new order of space development even more beneficial for mankind than the last one.

Question: But the Obama plan is already supporting commercial space development. Isn't that enough?

Alan: Yes, but no. The problem is that their source of funds is still, ultimately, the US taxpayer.

In effect, we're just changing the kind of government contracts from "cost plus" to "fixed price". Probably a good thing, but nowhere near enough, because ultimately the same anti-tax forces will make sure that pool of money - "their" money - stays too small to fund a government space settlement.  We need a space industry that pays taxes, instead of one that depends on them.

Sending astronauts to the Space Station will be the first revenue stream for private space development. The second revenue stream will be space tourists, starting with the very rich, of course, but expanding as soon as possible to an ever widening segment of the public.

Unfortunately, however, those and all other currently identified revenue streams added together aren't enough to attract real venture capitalists, only enough to attract rich philanthropists. So it's important to look for new, novel profit potentials, like Land Claims Recognition.

Speaking of rich philanthropists, they can unfortunately provide some space activists a way to pretend they support "commercial space" without the unpleasant necessity of dealing with real commerce's need for true profit. They see Elon Musk's motives in SpaceX as "pure", so those squeamish space activists can ignore the fact that Elon made the tons of money he's spending on space from real commerce - selling an intangible service for a gigantic profit.

A true commercial business can raise vastly more investment capital than a charity. SpaceX has hundreds of millions, space settlement will take billions or tens of billions. We can't keep ducking the need for a real big PayPal-style profit potential, commercially generated, not taxpayer financed.

Question: Is the idea of celestial land claim recognition gaining momentum?

Alan: Definitely! One of the best examples is Eric Rice, CEO of Orbitec, a true commercial space company, who realized how logical this idea was several years ago and has done a great job of promoting it ever since. Earlier this year, he got a generous NASA Steckler grant to study the idea. Rice also served as a past President of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Colonization Technical Committee, and he led six AIAA SCTC members on a Congressional lobbying effort in March 2010 that's led to a web discussion forum on the subject that includes a dozen key legislative space aides already.

He’s even posted a very slightly different version of my proposed draft law here.
He’s asking for feedback, and you can leave comments on the draft bill here.

Question: With Congressional staffers already reviewing and commenting on this draft bill, what are the next steps to get a revised bill to the US Congress?

Alan: Well, we still have a long way to go. The biggest step is to get one or more Congressmen and Senators to sponsor the bill. No one has gone that far, yet. It would also help a lot if more space activists took up the cause and started asking their own representatives about it.

Colin:  Thank you Alan!  I appreciate your efforts to expand humanity out into space.  I encourage my readers to review the draft land claims recognition bill.  Now is the time to make recommendations for needed changes to the bill.  The debate will be helpful to refine the bill.


  1. Great stuff!
    As usual Alan sticks to his guns.
    The first steps we are taking today will lead to and intersect with those he has long promoted.

    And we need to be both as fast as we can in their implementation and wary, for if we put such law into effect without free societies ready to jump into the breach, others might well take advantage of them.

    It wouldn't take a lot of claims to cover the poles...and there goes the "oil fields"...

    Can you say "nee haw"?

    Rick Tumlinson

    Again, great article.

  2. Alan Wasser sent me this response to Rick:

    Thank you, Rick, for the compliment.

    You say "if we put such law into effect without free societies ready to jump into the breach, others might well take advantage of them."

    I did think, at first, about whether it would be best to wait until we're ready to settle the moon before putting the law into effect, to keep it from encouraging some undesirable form of settlement.

    But I realized that waiting is not a good idea, for several reasons:

    For the Chinese and Indian governments this is still a national prestige issue, not a way to make money. China has made it clear that, when it can put a base on the moon, it will! This law won't make the tiniest bit of difference to that. The only difference this law would make is whether Western private enterprise, which does care about making money, is competing in the race to the Moon or sitting back and leaving the field
    to the Chinese government.

    So, if this law isn't passed, the Chinese probably will get there first.
    Once they have a base and a monopoly on lunar transport, they'll claim whatever they please - up to and including the whole Moon - and they may, or may not, let us visit.

    In that case, having this law on our books might possibly save our bacon by getting them to play by its rules. Those include: no more than one claim of 4% of the moon and having to let Americans on their ships and base.

    The only way this law does them, or anyone else, any good is it LETS them sell some of their land to Americans. But that also means it GETS them to sell Lunar land to Americans, and let Americans go and move in.

    Even if the Lunar settlement is Chinese, I suspect Mr. Bigelow would still be very eager to be able to buy Lunar land, build a hotel and send tourists. Every US hotel chain wants to do just that in China itself, today.

    On the other hand, commercial settlement is SO big an investment that the commercial settlement efforts that would be influenced by this law would almost certainly be multi-national consortia - like all really big projects these days. Investors, components, executives and settlers, etc. would come from many different countries, including the US, China Japan and Europe - not specifically from any one nation.

    Finally, compare the current era to when Kennedy had the guts to commit us to the race to the Moon, even though we were then WAY behind the Russians. What if JFK had said, "we can't start the race to the Moon until we're guaranteed we'll win"? By having the courage to start the race then, even though we might have lost, he motivated America to excel, and when we came from behind to win, the victory was so much sweeter.

    Today we're still well ahead of the Chinese and Indians. But without some big-profit incentive like this one to motivate American free enterprise, even that won't last.

    The sooner we start this race, the better for us, and the sooner settlement will occur.

    I've always valued our friendship and I'm definitely looking forward to that intersection you speak of, - when the Foundation is ready to add to it's program some way to make space settlement PayPal-like profitable - to do for space development what that kind of profit potential did for the personal computer industry.

    Best regards,

  3. Interestingly, the 62Mile Club points to a proposal by former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bob Walker on an alternative way to finance a moon base.

    -25-year tax exemption to any company who established a base and operated for a full year.
    -Think of the participation from big US firms!
    -Lost tax revenue would be offset from the added lunar infrastructure and growth of the industry overall.

    Full post is here: