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An Anti-Commons in Space:

In this article in the Space Review, political scientist John Hickman argues that space exploration has been seriously impeded by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prevents the establishment of national sovereignty and private property rights in space. As a result, he claims, we have created a tragedy of the anti-commons which undercuts the incentive to engage in beneficial exploration and exploitation of space. Many of Hickman's claims seem plausible. However, his argument that that competition between different national space legal systems in space would be harmful seems to contradict his main thesis that independent national sovereignties in space are desirable. Whether or not greatly expanded space exploration is technically feasible and commercially viable is an issue beyond my expertise. But I certainly agree that national sovereignty and private property rights are likely to provide a better framework for any exploration that is feasible than the current dysfunctional legal regime.

I discussed some related issues in this post, which made the case for establishing private property rights in space.

Eli Rabett (www):
See the Law of the Sea ratification. Same issue.
9.25.2007 11:44am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
What is it about Berry College? Isn't that where Newt taught? They must be drinking some powerful moonshine up there to come up with such wacko theories.

Yeah right, the reason space exploration has been hobbled is because you can't buy property on the moon! It's because it is too freaking expensive! Remember, you libertarians don't like government spending. Even if we were declare the moon open to private development nobody would be launching private ventures to get there. Show me a business plan.

Sheesh.
9.25.2007 12:03pm
Ilya Somin:
Yeah right, the reason space exploration has been hobbled is because you can't buy property on the moon! It's because it is too freaking expensive!

The two causes are not mutually exclusive. Both could be at work. However, if we could "buy property on the moon" and elsewhere in space, that would give private entrepreneurs a strong incentive to work to reduce the cost - just as they successfully reduced the cost of air and sea travel in the past.
9.25.2007 12:07pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
just as they successfully reduced the cost of air and sea travel in the past.

This is a dubious proposition at best--especially the notion that they have reduced the cost of air travel. The jury is still out on that one. After eighty years of commercial aviation they have still to figure out a winning combination of price and service--and it is uncertain if the current round of cutthroat competition coupled with lousy service is sustainable.
9.25.2007 12:36pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Both could be at work.

Except there are simply no companies complaining that they can't buy mineral rights on the moon--at least I haven't heard of any, have you or Prof Hickman. Wild assertions and wishful thinking doesn't prove a ridiculous assertion.
9.25.2007 12:41pm
KWAbrams:
J. F. Thomas,
I believe the thrust of the post is "who knows?" as opposed to any definite assertion that mining camps would be set up on the moon any time in the new future. In general, enforceable property rights encourage future development. Who would be hurt by opening space to property purchases and rights? Also, how much development would one see in the American West if travel were expensive and no one were allowed to buy the land?
9.25.2007 12:55pm
bittern (mail):
I hosey Alpha Centauri.
9.25.2007 1:00pm
Henri Le Compte (mail):
What about the legal status of close Earth objects, like satellites and space stations. I always assumed that there was no problem with private ownership of those thing. Was I wrong? (I speak here from complete ignorance.) I think recently the Chinese blew-up something of ours in space with a rocket, or some such thing. I assume that a private communications firm could sue to get the cost of the satellite back, no? Assuming the Chinese would ever even respond to such a suit...

Our current technology only allows us access to close Earth objects, like satellites and space stations. Of course, the lack of a financial incentive is what prevents the development of technologies for deeper space. JF Thomas, I think you are too dismissive of this idea. 500 years ago your very same argument could have been employed by the doubters of Columbus. Imagine that all financial incentive had been taken out of the quest for the New World. Who would have pursued it? The technological hurdle for space flight is much, much greater, but hasn't history shown the technology pessimists to be wrong? Again and again?

Don't underestimate the power of greed, and the promise of uncountable riches.
9.25.2007 1:01pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> This is a dubious proposition at best--especially the notion that they have reduced the cost of air travel. The jury is still out on that one. After eighty years of commercial aviation they have still to figure out a winning combination of price and service

Huh?

Far more people travel by air today than did in 1950.

Yes, some/much of that is due to the fact that we're richer than before, but not all.

BTW - Airlines going bankrupt isn't a bug. New airlines replace them.
9.25.2007 1:02pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
This reminds me of an old SNL sketch about how much faster we would have won WWII if Elanor Roosevelt could fly.
9.25.2007 1:03pm
Spitzer:
What an interesting issue! One could argue that the Outer Space treaty essentially turned outer space into one giant nature preserve/national park. Eventually, when potential profits for exploration and exploitation rise sufficiently, wildcatters and squatters may ignore treaty restrictions (much as cottagers ignored England's forest laws, and some western settlers ignored Indian treaties). We'll see what happens to the Outer Space treaty if/when a valuable ore (gold? uranium?) is discovered in abundance on some nearby moon, planet, or asteroid.

That is to say, while I agree that setting up a giant nature reserve reduces incentives to explore and exploit outer space - and the reduced incentives consequently inhibit the scale and scope of innovation to reduce costs - I would hope that something sufficiently valuable in outer space will be discovered in the future that will trump formal government restrictions. After all, neither the New World nor the Wild West were settled by governments or by public plans; they were largely explored and settled by private enterprise (even if some of the enterprise received some funding from governments); there is no reason to believe that outer space will be explored and settled by government action alone, nor that government action will be able to contain exploration/exploitation once private enterprise discovers profits out there.

Let's look forward to the day when wildcatters set up on the moon!
9.25.2007 1:06pm
KWAbrams:
J. F. Thomas,
Why are you so utterly opposed to establishing private property rights in space? Maybe you're right and it is impossible to capitalize on them right now, but why do you exhibit such extreme distaste for the theoretical discussion of such rights? Can we only establish rights when we can utilize the resource right at this very moment? Would you oppose establishing property rights over undersea oil fields we do not yet have technology to cheaply extract?
9.25.2007 1:07pm
MI (mail) (www):
As to why space resources remain largely unexploited...while legalities probably are a factor, I think the main reason is that economic incentives for such exploitation are largely absent given current market conditions. Consider what space has to offer: 1) living space (e.g., O'Neill colonies); 2) mineral resources (both metallic &non-metallic); and 3) energy (solar, and perhaps helium-3 for fusion). Malthusian claims notwithstanding, none of these is really in short supply on earth right now; hence, there's little economic incentive to exploit space resources in anything beyond niche markets (e.g., communications satellites). Of course, this could change in the next half-century or so.

Admittedly, the high cost of launching stuff into orbit creates a steep barrier to entry for any supplier seeking to exploit space resources. However, if incentives for exploiting space resources were sufficiently high, private innovation would probably suffice to bring those costs down to something reasonable. (It takes the same amount of fuel, after all, to fly a pound of payload transpacific as it does to launch a pound into space; and last I checked, we didn't have airlines charging >$100k for LA-to-Sydney roundtrips.)

I'm all for private property &private enterprise in space; however, I tend to think that legal factors a distant second to economic ones at the present time.

As for competing legal regimes, I think this depends greatly upon whatever nation-state first starts exploiting space in a truly big way. If that nation decides that space weapons (e.g., ASAT's) are sufficiently lethal that their possession by any other power would pose unacceptable risks to its own presence in space, then even with current technology (e.g., Brilliant Pebbles), it could unilaterally enforce a "space blockade" against any other nation-state. In which case, there would be no competing legal regimes unless the aforementioned nation-state allowed them to exist.
9.25.2007 1:28pm
Ilya Somin:
After all, neither the New World nor the Wild West were settled by governments or by public plans; they were largely explored and settled by private enterprise (even if some of the enterprise received some funding from governments)

Agreed. But much of that private enterprise was incentivized through the opportunity to acquire property rights under laws such as the Homestead Act.
9.25.2007 1:52pm
Ilya Somin:
just as they successfully reduced the cost of air and sea travel in the past.

This is a dubious proposition at best--especially the notion that they have reduced the cost of air travel. The jury is still out on that one. After eighty years of commercial aviation they have still to figure out a winning combination of price and service--and it is uncertain if the current round of cutthroat competition coupled with lousy service is sustainable.


The costs of air travel have fallen massively over the last 50 years, both absolutely and relative to income. There's no serious dispute over that issue in the economic literature on the subject. The "cutthroat competition" you mention is just another way of saying that prices have been gratly reduced.
9.25.2007 1:54pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Why are you so utterly opposed to establishing private property rights in space?

I am not. What disturbs me is college professors thinking the lack of currently available private property rights has anything to do with the present situation regarding space exploration. The theory is patently absurd. With current technology, commercial exploitation of space is just not economically feasible. It's not even close. Lack of private property rights has absolutely zero to do with it. This is a discussion for many years in the future when someone can explain how it could be done without losing billions of dollars.

(It takes the same amount of fuel, after all, to fly a pound of payload transpacific as it does to launch a pound into space; and last I checked, we didn't have airlines charging >$100k for LA-to-Sydney roundtrips.)

Lord I hope you didn't take high school, let alone college physics. If you did, I hope you failed it.
9.25.2007 1:56pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The costs of air travel have fallen massively over the last 50 years, both absolutely and relative to income.

No doubt they have, but with the massive support and investment of governments all over the world. There are only two remaining manufacturers of large commercial airliners, and both of them survive only because of massive government subsidies--both direct and indirect. The commercial airline industry, over its history, still has not managed to turn a profit. With worldwide deregulation of the industry has come a race to the bottom in pricing that may very well be unsustainable.
9.25.2007 2:02pm
WHOI Jacket:
What would have been the development of the American West if the government had decreed that everything west of the Mississippi River was "public trust" and no one would be allowed to own property there?
9.25.2007 2:31pm
Smokey:
JF Thomas is arguing that the elimination of government subsidies would result in the elimination of air travel. Does anyone else believe that?

And re:
"This is a dubious proposition at best--especially the notion that they have reduced the cost of air travel. The jury is still out on that one."
The jury just came back with a verdict. When I traveled roundtrip from coast to coast in 1968, I searched with two different travel agents for the lowest airfare I could find. The cost: $380.

Today, with the CPI showing that prices have increased ~five hundred percent since then, and with the price of oil increasing over 10X, the cost of air travel is less than it was in the late '60's.

It is not a "dubious proposition" that airlines have reduced the cost of air travel. They certainly have -- and far beyond any possible government subsidy. Anyone who put their retirement money into the hugely profitable Southwest Airlines, for instance, knows that some carriers have made excellent profits.
9.25.2007 2:54pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Anyone who put their retirement money into the hugely profitable Southwest Airlines, for instance, knows that some carriers have made excellent profits.

Of course if you had put your money in TWA, PanAm, Eastern, People Express or a myriad of other airlines it would be quite a different story.

JF Thomas is arguing that the elimination of government subsidies would result in the elimination of air travel. Does anyone else believe that?

Believe whatever you want. I only know what the facts and reality tells me. Boeing and Airbus are the only two manufacturers of large commercial airliners. Neither would exist without government subsidies (Boeing in the form of its military contracts and Airbus in direct support). Commercial aviation would not exist without the historic direct support (through strict government control of pricing and routes) in its early years to limit competition and would not continue to exist without the infrastructure support (airports and the air traffic control system) it still receives.

It can hardly be said that the airline industry is healthy. In fact it is on the verge of collapse, with the major carriers going in and out of bankruptcy and the smaller carriers coming and going so quickly they make your head spin.
9.25.2007 3:23pm
Brian K (mail):
I have to agree with JF Thomas on this one. Lack of property rights is not the main reason why people aren't exploring deep space. It's just not economically feasible. A pound of some mineral brought back from space will almost always cost more than a pound of the same mineral dug up here on Earth.* Who will pay more for something of extraterrestrial origin when the same thing can be had for less from Earth?

The lack of property rights is certainly not hampering the exploitation of space. We have google earth, cell phones, satellite tv, GPS, etc even though you can't own a chunk of space. Also look at the X-prize...there may very well be economical space tourism in my lifetime.


* The two exceptions I can think if are 1) teleportation technology, but this certainly is not feasible now, and 2) once a certain mass of critical infrastructure has been up in space the marginal cost of that next pound of mineral might be close to what it is on Earth, but who will pay for that infrastructure knowing that they most likely will not be able to recoup their costs?
9.25.2007 3:52pm
MI (mail) (www):
>> (It takes the same amount of fuel, after all, to fly a pound of payload transpacific as it does to launch a pound into space; and last I checked, we didn't have airlines charging >$100k for LA-to-Sydney roundtrips.)

> Lord I hope you didn't take high school, let alone college physics. If you did, I hope you failed it.


Well, I took both, actually, and passed both times. But I sometimes forget that "same" in common parlance doesn't necessarily mean "within an order of magnitude". My mistake. Energia rockets have a ~22:1 fuel-to-payload ratio; compare with about 4:1 for a C-5A flying from LA-Sydney. 6x more...okay, perhaps not identical, but certainly far less than the ratio between launch costs. Partly this is because we insist on throwing away expensive aerospace machinery with every launch. Also, because a well-run airline like Southwest, using only twice as many employees as NASA, manages to launch more flights per day than the annual number of rocket launches worldwide.

My larger point - perhaps overlooked - was that our current methods of space launch are very cost-inefficient, and there doesn't appear to be any inherent physical reason why they could not be much lower.
9.25.2007 4:10pm
Brian K (mail):
Also, because a well-run airline like Southwest, using only twice as many employees as NASA, manages to launch more flights per day than the annual number of rocket launches worldwide.
you are incorrectly assuming that NASA and southwest do the same thing. NASA also does significant amounts of research.
9.25.2007 4:37pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
My mistake. Energia rockets have a ~22:1 fuel-to-payload ratio; compare with about 4:1 for a C-5A

Hmm, took and passed physics twice and you think merely comparing the fuel-to-payload ratio between a two-stage rocket and jet aircraft is useful and valid. Interesting.
9.25.2007 4:42pm
Brian K (mail):
Energia rockets have a ~22:1 fuel-to-payload ratio; compare with about 4:1 for a C-5A flying from LA-Sydney. 6x more...okay, perhaps not identical, but certainly far less than the ratio between launch costs.
This is not a fair comparison. The space shuttle and the boeing 747 do not use the same fuel. the boosters on the space shuttle deliver a combined 5.6 million lbs of thrust while the 4 engines of the 747 deliver a measly 160-180 thousand lbs of thrust. the costs associated with the two different fuels are going to be very different.
9.25.2007 4:46pm
Brian K (mail):
you beat me to it JF
9.25.2007 4:46pm
MI (mail) (www):
you are incorrectly assuming that NASA and southwest do the same thing. NASA also does significant amounts of research.

Even if the shuttle flew 1000 flights _per year_, Southwest still does better (in terms of flights per employee) even if only 0.2% of NASA employees work on the shuttle.

Hmm, took and passed physics twice and you think merely comparing the fuel-to-payload ratio between a two-stage rocket and jet aircraft is useful and valid. Interesting.

If the question is "how much fuel is required to put a given payload mass into orbit", then why wouldn't this comparison be valid? As to the larger question of launch costs, no, of course it isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, for reasons I've mentioned before. I'd be interested to hear what physical &technical factors make cheap space flight (e.g., $100/lb) inherently impossible. Feel free to include numbers &equations; if they go over my head, you can just poke fun at my response. :)
9.25.2007 5:32pm
Brian K (mail):
Even if the shuttle flew 1000 flights _per year_, Southwest still does better (in terms of flights per employee) even if only 0.2% of NASA employees work on the shuttle.
but even this is not a fair comparison. when was the last time a southwest employee went to fix the engine in mid flight? (I fly southwest quite often and i have never seen this). your also forgetting that southwest doesn't provide all of its flight services, while nasa does. there are 3rd party maintenance companies, 3rd party food companies, some of the ground crew are employees of the airport, security is provided by the government and flight control is provided by the government and/or 3rd party employees. Southwest may not even run all of its flights...it may contract them out to 3rd party regional airlines. (to be fair i'm not actually sure if SW does it, but i know many other airlines do.)
9.25.2007 5:42pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I'd be interested to hear what physical &technical factors make cheap space flight (e.g., $100/lb) inherently impossible.

In a word--gravity. And if you are carrying people, life support and radiation shielding.

Overcoming the earth's gravitational field takes a whole lot of power (you have to reach an escape velocity to escape earth orbit). For suborbital flight--like that achieved by the X prize winners and low earth orbit satellites you really haven't even escaped earth's gravitational field. Even in low earth orbits you are still being pulled back towards earth, your "weight" has barely diminished at all (the "weightlessness" experienced by shuttle astronauts is illusory, they are still being tugged earthward by gravity, the centrifugal force of the orbiting craft is just counteracting gravity).

Just compare the payload that the rocket you linked is capable of carrying to a low earth orbit with what it can carry to a geosynchronis orbit and you will see the massive energy requirements it takes to overcome earth's pull.
9.25.2007 6:00pm
martinned (mail) (www):
L.S.,

OK, back on topic: The problem with the thesis stated in the post is that establishing property rights does not only have consequences for incentives, but also for wealth distribution. For example, the Homestead Act could be seen as a gigantic subsidy from the American people, generally (or the US government, depending on one's preference) to the settlers. Whoever claims a res nullius first, gets to keep its value. Where the existence of these objects is not known yet, as in the Columbus example, the possibility of claiming whatever is found provides a good example to go and explore. Space, on the other hand, has already been surveyed extensively from earth. We know it's there, we know what's there, we just don't know how to get to it. If it wasn't for the Outer Space Treaty, the current balance of power would be projected into the future with the states that are currently powerful dividing up the (potential) riches of outer space between them. Instead, now we have a system whereby space belongs to no one until such time as space travel has become significantly less costly than it currently is.

At the moment, for any private enterprise to be investing in R&D, other than perhaps to find a cheaper alternative for the space shuttle as a method for putting satellites into orbit, would be the single most speculative investment ever undertaken. Extremely low probability of success, combined with, it is claimed, an extremely high payoff if successful. Saying such investment would be a long shot does not even begin to describe it. No wonder no one seems to be interested.
9.25.2007 9:35pm