Shooting at comets, aiming higher

Posted: Jul 17, 2005 12:00 AM
For July 4th, Independence Day, NASA sponsored a unique fireworks display. America's space agency shot and hit a comet with a rocket. Or, as they like to say, a probe. The impact brightened up telescopes on Earth and in orbit. The images were spectacular.

The NASA people were much enthused — and they've probably thought about that success a lot this past week as the space shuttle sat still on the launch pad, unable to lift off.

Now, I often talk about "unintended consequences" when it comes to government programs, but the comet fireworks had a really unintended consequence. A Russian woman sued NASA for upsetting her astrology charts. She sued to stop the project, and also for the amount of the project's cost — for her "moral trauma." This astrologer claimed that "elements of the comet's orbit, and correspondingly the ephemeris, will change after the explosion, which interferes with my astrology work and distorts my horoscope."

I don't often side with governments against individuals, but in this case, well, I think a lack of true causality in astrology should be easily provable in court. If not, then junk science has indeed gone too far.

But nuisance lawsuits are not the biggest problem we face in exploring and developing outer space. Mankind needs to think longer term. We must encourage space exploration. In fact, that mission is so important that it shouldn't be left to NASA — or to similar outfits in other countries.

We need private enterprise in space.

It makes far more sense for private individuals to risk their capital rather than force everyone to give up yet more of their wealth to the tax system. And it is private efforts, millions of them, both big and not so big, that have moved mountains on earth and will one day tame the vastness of space. Private efforts are the true source of our successes and level of prosperity. Of course, private property and economic well-being rest on a minimal amount of common-sense good government, but it's the actual achievers in the private sphere who drive progress. Government must be humble enough to do what needs to be done and then get out of the way, letting others do the bigger, riskier tasks.

Unfortunately, our current governments are lunatic when it comes to space, and especially our nearest important object in space, the Moon. The Moon, at present, is a huge unused resource. It won't be used, much, until 1967's Outer Space Treaty and 1979's Moon Treaty are repudiated and private exploration and property in outer space allowed and encouraged by decent law.

Current international law is dead set against both private property and national sovereignty in outer space. The laws read like some whacked-out leftist's science fictional twist of an anti-colonial rant. Thing is, in this context, there are no little green men to move off Lunar crust or Martian dust, so any colonization done in our planetary system would lead to no aboriginal rights violations as a consequence. The laws are simply obstructionist, based on a bizarre, other-worldly transference of earthly fears.

On the bright side, few nations have signed the treaties. So what we have left is a sort of legal limbo — which is not much better. Without clear property rights, investors and entrepreneurs and visionaries must risk more than the state of technology suggests — they risk losing the actual fruits of their successes to the play of international whim and pressure. Without the ability to capture rewards through property acquisition, capitalism on earth wouldn't exist.

We can all celebrate NASA's spectacular fireworks on a comet, but we should remember that true progress in space awaits private enterprise. Once private property is allowed and enforced, then private investment will become a live option.

How, though, could private enterprise be made to work in space? Last year's SpaceShipOne showed that space travel could soon become a lucrative tourist industry. Further, the ability to treat objects and points in space (including such stable orbital points as L4 and L5) as private property will encourage private investment, which will allow economies to develop and civilization to flourish far above current borderlines.

The best argument for extensive government involvement in space is the security of life on Earth: we need to be able to destroy or re-route asteroids and comets that could hit the planet. But the flip side of this argument is at least as persuasive, if not more so: only after space travel is common, commercial, and industrial will mankind really always be at the ready to deflect a danger of this sort. Indeed, since comets and asteroids will be economic prizes, this is one case where the world can truly be saved at a profit. An asteroid dangerously looms towards the earth? A corporation should be already there, steering it into a stable orbit around the sun, harvesting it chunk by chunk.

Unfortunately, we're a long way from that. At present, space industry is just sitting on the launch pad, like the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis, waiting to take off. It needs creativity, ingenuity, guts and the stiff, bracing kick of withheld subsidy. Oh sure, it needs dollars, lots of dollars — but with better policy those dollars can come from investment, not taxation.

Instead of planning a glitzy mission to Mars, or funding another foray to the Moon, our politicians should spend less money and more actual brain cells to devise a new Outer Space Treaty. One that would help launch, not stifle, industry.

And come to think of it, just as we need more freedom and protection for private property to truly make space the next frontier, greater freedom and governmental respect for property rights on Earth would come in handy, too.