Saturday, 14 May 2016

The New Space Race

Sooner or later, someone's going to kick some serious asteroid1. Within a decade or two, a commercial space venture is most likely going to start mining 'Near-Earth Objects' and will bring back increasing amounts of very high-value metals as well as extracting water-ice for life support and propulsion purposes. So who owns these asteroids? Is it 'Finders-Keepers?'

From - Is this what the future looks like?

Until recently, the main piece of International Law on this subject treats space similarly to Antarctica:

Outer space… is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;2

This is an extract from The Outer Space Treaty, which came into force in 1967. It also says:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind…2

There are five other international treaties dealing with relations between space-faring states, but not all have been ratified by the major space powers. They were written in the era of Mercury, Soyuz and Apollo, when only the most powerful governments could hope to launch even two or three astronauts or cosmonauts into orbit. It doesn't actually talk about private business activities in space.

Attitudes to the use of space resources and the existing law seemed to vary all the way between outright capitalism to a more one-world feeling of sharing it all for the good of all humanity. It didn't really matter until now, because since 1972 and the last Apollo mission, the human race has been no further than low Earth orbit.

Now we're looking at a New Space Race, when a few billionaires such as Elon Musk and a growing number of aerospace corporations are determined to bring the cost of space access down low3, with some government assistance it should be said4, as well as a sudden rush of big investment money5, perhaps ushering in a new period of exploration and exploitation. Commercial space operations plan to lay claim to asteroids - and then it could be portions of the surface of Mars and the Moon. That could set a precedent: whoever gets there first and plants their corporate flag could start strip-mining these pristine worlds and set up their own feudal kingdom. So I was going to write that governments need to pay attention to this area before it all goes bad.

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship
 of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing. Credit: SpaceX

But of course the lawyers got there first.

The International Institute of Space Law was founded all the way back in 1960. Citing the recent legislation passed by Obama's government that deals with the economic rights of US citizens in space, the IISL says, in a position paper on Space Mining:

The Act determines in § 51303 that United States citizens 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 in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.6

That changes things not a little. Possessing an asteroid and selling it doesn't sound too much like the good old Outer Space Treaty. So what about the rest of the world? Will anyone object? And can they do anything about it?

Of course any nation is free to pass laws similar to this – it's in their own interests that the USA takes the lead – but is it just up to the other space-faring powers to follow suit or lose out on the bounty? And who will arbitrate between competing claims? Who owns ores that aren't located under any Earthly nation's territory? And will any policing force be on hand to maintain an approximation of law and order when business giants butt heads? It sounds more like the Wild West.

It sounds like a promising background for a new science fiction novel I'd like to write one day.

Stepping back a moment from questions of what-if, let's ask if there's any solid ground to build this new future that so recently used to be the realm of fiction and imagination. On what basis will laws be written? From whose ideology will the lawmakers be reading? Pragmatically, realistically, many would expect powerful business interests to have the strongest hand in building the fences and writing the rules of the New Space world. Will human life on other planets and in space become a corporate plutocracy? Or a playground for the ridiculously rich? Let us be at least slightly cynical about the we-love-SpaceX-and-Star-Trek feeling that everything will be shiny and nice when we're all living in space. Won't humans, left to themselves, just carry on doing what they've always done? Misery and degradation appear to be two of the main exports of the human race when we move outwards and settle in new lands.

So at the very least we need some laws to throttle back on the bad stuff and give the good stuff a chance. How will new laws be written and enforced?

Do we have any philosophical basis for deciding all this, other than a default sense of doing what seems to work at the time? See what a mess it's getting us into – ask slave children harvesting the cocoa beans in Ivory Coast if globalisation is working for them. Greed is also leading some to do what seems best in their own eyes, and large numbers of easily-exploited people are suffering – think of Qatar building its World Cup arenas on the trampled rights of guest workers who are just trying to provide for their families.7

Investors will follow the money. That's the altar at which they worship. Explorers will go because it's out there; scientists will follow the trail of their latest hypothesis, the next new discovery. Engineers want to build bigger and better toys for the rest of them.

As one who follows Jesus above all else, I think I've found a firm foundation for an ethical approach to this. If that statement generates a strong reaction of distaste in some readers, wait a moment and hold tight to your open-mindedness: much of the fragile stability, elusive justice and two-edged scientific progress we now benefit from was constructed from a worldview owing much to the wisdom of the Bible. To date, as far as I can tell, there's no ideology or way of thinking that's got a better track record. The scientific method itself was pieced together by thinkers, writers and scientists such as ibn al-Haytham, Roger Bacon, Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton, who mostly based their works on their strong belief that there is a personal, trustworthy Creator responsible for making the Universe the way it is.

Regrettably, many over the centuries have taken up the Bible (or other religious texts) and used its words for political or personal gain. Some people just seem to like making more rules for the rest of us. Even today there are claims that the Bible says this or that about the rightness or wrongness of space travel. For example, here is an online debate that includes a quote from Psalm 115 v6:

"The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth hath he given to the children of men." A clear distinction is set: Earth has been given to men, but the heavens have not.

The trouble is that the original writer was almost certainly not thinking about the possibility of living in space, because at that time, about 3000 years ago, the Jews had something like a three-tiered cosmology of an airy heaven (the atmosphere), with above that the starry heaven, and beyond that the highest heaven where God himself dwells; nobody at that time is recorded as proposing that anyone could live beyond the airy heaven. Very often the Hebrew words translated 'heaven' and 'the heavens' either mean the sky and clouds, or the place where God and the angels dwell, or a place so far away that it's obviously used as an exaggeration. A more even-handed reading of the Bible as a whole uncovers many references to God owning both Earth and heaven and appointing humankind as tenants and stewards of all of it. For a good discussion of this, see this page.

When I read Psalm 8, it's plain to see how the Creator set humankind as rulers over all of the creation, accountable to him. Even then, long before the telescope, the writer could be overcome with awe at the vast extent of the heavens above, and be humbly glad that God cares so much for our little race, amazed that he's given us such a huge mandate:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8 v.3-8, New International Version)

In fact, if I was an marstronaut, travelling for five months through the great empty spaces, or sitting in a habitat in a desolate rust-coloured desert, Psalm 8 would probably be a favourite to read through.

What makes sense to me, and to the faith community of which I'm part, is this non-literalistic way of reading the Bible. It's not that the words aren't true – of course they are – it's more that you need to see the forest as well, not just the twigs and branches on each tree. The Bible helps us to interpret itself – so read the themes, look at verses in the context of the paragraphs, books, and canon in which they're set; listen to what the writers & readers would have understood, then draw principles, understand a little more of God's mind – then apply this to today's and tomorrow's world. And still try to get on with people who come to a different interpretation.

So there's a theme of stewardship, of governing the creation for the Creator who provided all things for us all.

Deuteronomy chapter 4 fascinates me: here is a people about to enter a new land, and Moses is laying out God's revolutionary culture of order, kindness and God-centredness – a culture that they have to construct and live out so that the other nations will watch and learn. In particular, over and over, they're told not to worship that which is not God:

And also carefully guard yourselves so that you don’t look up into the skies and see the sun and moon and stars, all the constellations of the skies, and be seduced into worshiping and serving them. God set them out for everybody’s benefit, everywhere. (Deuteronomy 4 v.19, The Message version)

Interesting, that last thought. Again, I'm pretty sure that Moses wasn't thinking of asteroid mining when he first said this, but it contributes to a simple principle: God made it all for everyone's benefit. The whole book – Deuteronomy as well as the Bible as a whole – is full of concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, who can be so easily marginalised or abused.

I'm not so naive to imagine that many space colonists are going to suddenly acknowledge that they are morally responsible to their Creator and will act accordingly. But some of those involved in policy-making and colony-building will discover, I hope, that a modernised 'theistic' worldview is the foundation they have been seeking on which to build new worlds. And for others, if they're pragmatic enough to seek a tried and tested ethic, and open-minded enough to reject the popular chorus that 'all problems are caused by religion so ditch all references to that kind of God', exploring the ancient wisdom of the monotheistic faiths will yield treasures more lasting than the kind you might find in a space rock.

So the fruits of creation are to be shared with all people. How would that work for asteroid mining companies? The same as it ought to work for all other businesses – fair play for all. Treat workers, suppliers and customers with dignity, as you would like to be treated. If a company does well, it can afford to be generous. How about setting up a voluntary system for channeling a percentage of the profits of outer space industries into proven, grass-roots development projects such as providing clean drinking water and eliminating malaria? Sounds like Bill and Melinda Gates already? Well, there are precedents.

And how to handle the rights and obligations of employers and employees when there are no unions, arbitrators or human rights watchers for fifty million miles? In my humble, very inexpert opinion it's probably of little use passing laws 'down here' and expecting everything to work out alright 'up there'. There has to be a consensus among the New Space corporations and space-faring nations that there are minimum standards of employment, and that transparency is a given.

Sooner or later there could be clusters of settlers on (say) Mars, each cluster with its own character and mix of peculiar characters. They will very soon feel like making their own rules, I imagine, or will strike out for full political independence from Earth as soon as it's practical. Maybe if they feel they've been downtrodden, they'll claim the planet, or parts of it, for themselves, and come into conflict with the 'Old World' powers. So from right now there must be a common mindset of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. See this article from The Guardian cheekily entitled 'How to Colonize Mars', which sketches some possible ways of doing that.

(postscript: I just found this detailed paper entitled 'A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars' by Sara Bruhns and Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. It seems I'm not the only one thinking on this topic - in fact they have a much better grasp of it all. - July 11th, 2016 - JP)

Image credit: Getty images / Huffington Post

Should there be private ownership on Mars? I don't see how there can be much development and prosperity without it. Yet it's a clean slate, and I think I speak for many when I express a hope that colonists can leave behind the excesses and tyrannies we see around us, the ugly disparities of wealth. We all carry the seeds of paradise and of poverty around in our pockets, and we can choose which type of seed we are going to sow.

The closest real-life example I've seen that informs me on how to live as a community on Mars is when I and my family were living on an island in the Indian Ocean among people whose descendants had survived there for centuries. Wherever we went, we could see that many people were actually related to each other in some way, or were friends, and they generally helped each other out as a natural part of living. They took each day unhurriedly, enjoying the land they lived in and the people they were with. We were made so welcome, generously so, even though many of the islanders had little to share with us and lived hard lives. I could romanticise their way of life very easily, but the overall sense of sharing a land and treating each other with respect will always stay with me. That's an ethos that I very much hope will take root wherever the human race goes next.

1: 'kick some asteroid': from the 2016 animated movie 'Ratchet and Clank', which this writer has not seen.

2: From 'Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies',

3: For SpaceX, see this Harvard Business School article:

And here's a comparison of SpaceX with the French aerospace giant ArianeSpace, their nearest competitor:

4: See, for example, a NASA report on why the US government should support the commercialisation of space:

Other sources:

Space Law:

A brief history of the space launch industry and how SpaceX's plummeting prices are shaking up the world space business:

A quote from that Wikipedia article:

According to one Arianespace managing director, "'It's quite clear there's a very significant challenge coming from SpaceX,' he said. 'Therefore, things have to change … and the whole European industry is being restructured, consolidated, rationalised and streamlined.' "

Jean Botti, Chief technology officer for Airbus Group (which makes the Ariane 5) warned that "those who don't take Elon Musk seriously will have a lot to worry about"

Asteroid mining companies: