Belmont Club

The Return of the Frontier

Richard Yonck, writing in the Scientific American, calls the recent “passage of the Space Act of 2015 in the U.S. House and Senate” the Dawn of the Space Mining Age.  In essence, it “gives any American who successfully extracts natural resources from outer space the property rights over the haul.” The act has angered those who believe the cosmos should be free from the greedy scourge of capitalism. For the first time in human history, celestial objects, once the property of all because they were inaccessible to everyone, can be bought and sold by those who can reach them.

“My view is that natural resources [in space] should not be allowed to be appropriated by anyone — states, private companies, or international organizations,” said Ram Jakhu, a professor at McGill University’s institute of air and space law.

He said the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, signed by the U.S. and other countries, including Canada, makes it clear that the surfaces and contents of asteroids and other celestial bodies are protected from commercial harvesting.

The treaty’s Article 2 reads, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

By contrast, the bill’s sponsors see space as nothing less than America’s latest frontier, no different in essence from the possibilities that earlier advances in technology had enabled.

U.S. politicians supporting the new law see it as opening up a new and potentially vast economic frontier.

“This bill is the future of space,” Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, a Republican, said during debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. “This bill will encourage the private sector to build rockets, to take risks and to shoot for the heavens [and] facilitates a pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space sector.”

The opponents of space property rights are galvanized mostly by the belated realization that the United States, having the most advanced space industry, will have a disproportionate advantage on this new frontier. Richard Yonck writes:

Companies such as SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Orbital Sciences and Deep Space Industries all stand to benefit from this legislation as well they should, given all they are putting or propose to put on the line. But they will hardly be the only beneficiaries. The development of new industries will stimulate the national and global economy at a time when many types of work are rapidly disappearing. It will also make it possible for far more people to live at a standard that many in the west have long taken for granted.

Many countries are trying to play catch-up.  But for now most phases of commercial spacefaring — from prospecting, to returning ore samples, to processing materials and manufacturing finished articles — are most highly developed in the US.  So it is in the interest of other major terrestrial powers to slow things down until they can catch up.

At stake is not only the biggest Gold Rush in human history, but the greatest territorial expansion since the Age of Discovery. Most products built from space resources will be left outside of earth’s gravity well and men will go up to join their products rather than return them to Terra. Exploration means diaspora.

The Gold Rush aspect of the space industry still dominates the public discussion. As Deep Space Industries writes, until now humanity, like Robinson Crusoe, has been living off resources washed up from the ocean of space. Within a few decades humanity could go for the mother lode. The availability of limitless resources and energy will redefine material prosperity for the entire human race.

The harvest of space resources will be the biggest industrial transformation in human history. Full realization of this transformation is a marathon effort, similar to large terrestrial mine projects and creating breakthrough pharmaceuticals. The harvest of space resources is a long game. And we have a detailed game plan…

During the formation of the Earth, as the planet cooled, heavy substances such as metals, sank to the inside of the planet. This means that the majority of Earth’s crust is made from lighter elements, and the metals that our civilization needs are rarely found in the crust. This is why valuable metals like gold and platinum are considered “rare Earth metals.”

A large majority of the metals that we can easily access in the Earth’s crust were brought here by asteroids. We have already been mining space resources for generations! Mines in Africa, Canada, Australia and elsewhere are currently extracting rare earth metals that were deposited by devastating asteroid impacts in the distant past.

Less fully considered is the impact of such developments on human society. The 2015 Space Act does more than recognize property rights; it breaks down bureaucracy by exempting the space industry from much regulation until 2023.  As with the historical Western frontier when the law remained “back East,” there will be few sheriffs in the far reaches of the void. There, as nowhere else on 21st-century Earth, safety is your own lookout.

The legislation means that private space travel is still considered young, and lawmakers have given the industry more time to experiment and gather data.”It allows the industry to grow, to test, and to develop without this overshadow of the regulatory hammer coming down on them,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a non-profit aimed at promoting commercial spaceflight development, told The Verge. It also means that people participating in private spaceflight do so at their own risks, and there are no government regulations in place specifically to keep them safe. …

The advent of private spaceflight began in the 1960s, but the industry has only started growing rapidly this decade. To address this expansion, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in 2004. It granted the private sector a “learning period” free of regulation. The learning period was set to expire in December 2012 but was granted two short extensions. H.R. 2262 will extend the period for a further eight years, through September 30th, 2023. …

Right now, people who participate in commercial spaceflight do so through “informed consent” — meaning they know that they’re partaking in an endeavor that could easily kill them.

Since possession is 99% of the law under the new regime, the capitalist ethos threatens to return with a vengeance, much to the discomfort of instinctive liberals. “Under one provision of .. the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, commercial companies get the rights to any resources that they collect from celestial bodies. The provision is important for companies like the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources, which recently partnered with Virgin Galactic. ‘Now, if you go out somewhere in space and you pick [something] up, it’s yours,’ said Chris Lewicki, the president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources.”

It’s the kind of resource-grabbing starting gun and invitation to innovation that hasn’t been seen since 1492, which may be one reason why the Left and International Law experts are so uneasy with it.

Speaking in the U.S. House against the legislation, Representative Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat, said that while she shares in “the enthusiasm and the wonder of space,” there is insufficient oversight right now to make sure companies don’t run afoul of the U.S.’s international obligations. A space-law expert she cited from the University of Mississippi agreed that giving rights over asteroid resources would go against the global space treaty.

Liberals must rightly sense, even if they don’t currently understand why, that the bureaucratic controls which they have spent decades constructing can never be fully recovered after they expire. The reason is physics. The vast distances of the cosmos impose communications latencies that make real time monitoring and control impossible. When it takes as long as 22 minutes to send a one way message to Mars, the delegation of on-the-spot decision making to artificial intelligence or human beings on location is a necessity.

The outcome will be the emergence of true frontier where authority must diminish with distance from the center. Out at the edge, humanity will be independent as never before since the age of sail. If mankind spills out into space, future historians will see the last years of the 20th century as the momentary triumph of the human hive, its golden flowering — before it was replaced by a rough 21st century capitalism with its divergence in authority, and the re-emergence of local culture.

The Dawn of the Space Mining Age probably signals the Twilight of Socialism as much as it does the end of all material poverty.  It marks the end of a way of life. We live in a special time; a brief epoch when the human universe has become as small as it will ever be, a moment when no man living is more than a few moments away by text messaging from any other and no home is beyond 48 hours of subsonic jet travel.

If man takes to the Cosmos, then distances will become real again; and goodbyes will be for the first time in a hundred years once more forever.

The price of knowledge and plenty is to leave the Hive. Someday we may regard our stuffy politically correct Earth with more tolerance than is presently the custom. The future does not belong to those poor souls on American campuses who become hysterical at the slightest perceived micro-aggression, but to those with the boldness to take risks. In that context humanity may someday miss such coddled children in nostalgia for a lost Eden, which no sooner found at the start of the 21st century, just as soon slipped away.

In truth it was foolish for humanity to worry about losing the Frontier. In actuality, mankind is trapped in it, without escape except to face it with all the hardihood he can muster. In space no one can hear you scream about privilege; in fact no one may even know what you mean.

We are exiled, all of us, and doomed to wander. “So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

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