Property Rights in the High Frontier

Much is being discussed about the always controversial topic of property rights in space. Right now, there IS no comprehensive, universally-recognized system of property rights claims to extraterrestrial properties, despite all the heated debate at space-advocacy conferences. To be sure, there are a lot of great (and not-so-great) ideas being bandied about to "fix" this issue, but real progress may be some time in coming.

So...how does that help or hurt the prospects for space entrepreneurship? More to the point, how can the investment community solicit capital, if any claims made to properties on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids may not be globally recognized?

Good questions. Let's begin to answer them by stating what should be obvious: Despite the fact there we can't claim a "piece" of the moon yet, tens of billions of dollars are being made in space each year. How can that happen, if no one can technically OWN anything?

International Treaties

There ARE two United Nations agreements in place concerning this. The first, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, states that no government of a sovereign nation will be allowed to make any physical territorial claims on any extraterrestrial body. The primary purpose of this was to ensure that the militarization of space would not occur, in anticipation of Apollo's success.

International law scholars, however, make the argument that the wording of the treaty does not preclude private individuals or corporate entities from making property claims. It is generally accepted, however, that said individuals or corporations would have to be physically present at least once in order to stake such claims. The 1967 treaty was signed by most nations, including the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. It wasn't meant to prohibit peaceful, honest, space commerce.

By the end of the 70's, however, space commerce was on the table in The Moon Treaty of 1979. This treaty - written and promoted mostly by"developing" nations (many are extreme socialist kleptocracies) - expressed the doctrine that ALL extraterrestrial resources were "the common heritage of mankind". The purpose of this was an attempt to coerce anyone who might engage in extraterrestrial resource development to give up a significant chunk of the profits to "developing" nations, which were far less capable of developing their own spacefaring capacity. In other words, in the philosophy behind the Moon Treaty, all that steel sitting in that big asteroid out there belongs, by right, to everyone on Earth, and not the people risking both incredible fiscal resources, and their very lives, in order to go out and GET that steel to begin with. The majority of the world saw through such motives, however - only a handful of nations signed it. The U.S. and Russia, blessedly, did not. Australia did - and now they're busy trying to figure out how to get out of it.

In our view, the Moon Treaty is an unenforceable dead horse. The Outer Space Treaty is still viable, however, and could be used as a basis for better and more comprehensive property rights agreements. But until someone actually goes out there and lays claim to something, nothing will be done.

Also, consider the notion that space investment should be international in scope, as opposed to a Western/USA/Europe-only show. If those same "third world" governments who promoted the Moon Treaty invested in the Colony Fund instead, they would get far more bang for their buck, and foster virtually no resentment among those companies and individuals taking the risks to develop the resources. In fact, those countries would be taking part, in a very real way. They could invest what they could afford, and the profits are theirs. Opening up the "gateway" would also bring in needed investment to such countries. Why can't Indonesia have its own spaceport? Or Costa Rica? And when such spaceports are built, they'll be a long-term source of quality jobs and income for those nations.

Rocks, GEO-spots, and space stations

"Ownership" can be defined many different ways, ways that can be profitable. When the Apollo 11 crew returned from the Moon, did you know they were required to fill out lengthy customs forms for the rocks they brought back into the country? It seems laughable to consider, but that action actually served a good purpose - it established legal ownership to the rocks themselves. The U.S. government, on behalf of the American people, legally own the moon rocks, a piece of extraterrestrial property. None have been bought or sold, but the right to do so is respected. The vast majority of them, actually, are in storage someplace. No more than 10% of the total mass of moon rocks brought back by Apollo crews have actually been seen by the public, or even by research scientists. An interesting twist, however, came back in the late 70's, when the U.S. traded some of our samples for some returned by a Russian lunar probe. By doing this, the principle was further established in international convention: we can't claim the moon, but we can bring back pieces of it, and have full property rights protected. This principle will be very important to future asteroid miners!

Geosynchronous orbit is a place approx. 22,300 miles from Earth, where any satellite in that region will move at exactly the same pace as earth's rotation, enabling it to stay above the same area at all times. "GEO" is the holy grail for the communications satellite industry. Prime GEO sites are highly prized and coveted. An international commission acts as a sort of "port authority" in terms of assigning spots. However, there is also a "secondary market" for GEO slots, which can be bought and sold openly. All that wealth being generated, for a spot in the heavens which no one technically "owns", and isn't even solid! This, however, helps account for the multibillion dollar global satellite industry's success.

Man-made pressuized volumes in low earth orbit - i.e. "space stations" are also the latest targets for real estate deals. Before the old Russian MIR station was finally brought down, a deal had been negotiated between its owners and Mircorp for rental of the station for commercial space tourism and other purposes. Against all odds, Mircorp succeeded. The crux of the agreement turned out to be a simple lease - like the kind landlords and tenants at apartment complexes sign daily. Again, an international legal precedent for "ownership" in the heavens was established.

This may not be the perfect world many of us would like to see in terms of property rights in space, but it is a heck of a good beginning. We can launch vessels into space and rent them out to others. We can "claim" a bit of GEO space, then lease, sell or trade it. We can bring rocks and minerals back from other worlds and get them thru customs - ultimately selling them for profit on the world market if we wish. That is more enough leeway to get us started making money in the skies!

This is a much larger issue than we can really do justice to on this page. Later on we will provide some links to other more comprehensive sources. We are confident we can make our plans a reality with the "structure" that is in place today, and we can leave tomorrow to take care of itself. There is no point in pushing for rights claims on Mars, for example, until humans actually get there and insist upon them - by that point we are certain something, by necessity, will be worked out. If we are in a position to have any influence over the outcome at that time, you can be sure that we will!

Bear in mind that much of the Colony Fund's proposed investment philosophy is concerned with investments in space infrastructure - the hardware and support capabilities that will ultimately make orbiting hotels and Martian mining possible. The bulk of the profits that will be earned will be earned right here on planet Earth, for the benefit of earthlings.

Here's another view of space property rights that might be interesting. More links will come soon.

 

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