Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,

Space, the final cash register

A prominent 18/19th century economist, Thomas Malthus, warned of what was later known as the Malthusian Catastrophe (or Malthusian Dilemma.) A modern, simplified description of the problem might be "we're in deep shit by December." Those familiar with the dilemma generally dispute which December we're talking about, not the dilemma itself. Here's how it works:

  1. Our planet has limited resources
  2. We're using them

Now I realize that those two points may seem a little confusing to some of the more rabid Republicans out there, but it would be to their advantage to seize on them. The keyword here is "planet." Our planet has limited resources. Space is a different story. Why should we care? A recent Slashot poll illustrates why.

Who will colonize space successfully?
Who will colonize space successfully?
USA   15% 3594 / 15%
Russia   1% 443 / 1%
China   21% 5029 / 21%
India   3% 888 / 3%
Another government   3% 753 / 3%
A private corporation   34% 8105 / 34%
A non-profit org.   3% 738 / 3%
Soon as the arcology is done, I'm out of here   16% 3812 / 16%
23362 total votes.

Naturally we should bear in mind that online polls are very inaccurate but in this particular case I'd be surprised if people's opinions on this are very far off. I doubt this is a hot-button issue like a presidential poll where people think it's meaningful to stuff the ballot box. If this is representative of typical opinions on slashdot, then we can see that they are strongly leaning towards private corporations or China as colonizing space.

Before I go further, I think it's worth pointing out that slashdot is read voraciously by techies. After all, it's known as the "news for nerds" site. These are generally educated, somewhat intelligent individuals who pay more attention than most to scientific matters. We know about China's space program. We know what the X-prize is (or was.) We're a bunch of Heinlein and Asimov fans who are hyper-aware of the progress of our fantasies morphing into reality. And our money is on China (that's my vote) or private corporations.

So what? Why should our politicians care about this? Well, let's face it. Our resources here are limited, but the potential resources available throughout our solar system and beyond can feasibly sustain us for many millenia. I won't bother with the ethical arguments that people make about this issue. The reality is, corporations and governments know there's a gold-mine up there and if they can figure out how to get their pick and shovel up there, they will.

I hardly need state why our politicians would be concerned about China getting there first. Frankly, I think "more power to 'em." Still, I'd much rather see Europe or America pave the way as I suspect that access to space will be less restricted. From a political standpoint, though, China getting there first could be problematic. Let's face it. China's rulers make Bush look like a choir boy. I'm sure Ashcroft turns red, white and blue with envy when he hears about China shutting down Internet cafés and throwing dissidents in prison left and right. Unless China starts respecting human rights, we do not want them becoming the dominant world super power. Domination of space might just give them that.

So if not China, what's wrong with corporations? Enter The Principality of Sealand. Sealand is an independent nation formed in an old, abandoned sea fort off the coast of the United Kingdom. Because they were outside of any nation's territorial waters, no nation could claim jurisdiction over it. The British Navy briefly attempted to retake The Principality of Sealand, but after shots were fired and the case went to court, the British courts ruled that they had no authority outside of British national territory.

Side note: Wired magazine has an interesting article about Sealand's business prospects as a data sanctuary.

This, of course, makes life very interesting for corporations wishing to colonize space. If they decide they want a tax break, why not declare themselves an independent nation? Who's going to stop them? Instead of paying taxes to a state, they become the state! Let's consider a hypothetical situation that may be not so hypothetical in about 20 years or so.

Current space tourism plans involve writing a check for about $200,000, spending three days in training and enjoying a brief suborbital flight and bragging rights at cocktail parties. As technology improves, Space hotels are envisioned and even Hilton Hotels has expressed interest (see previous link.) The major technical problem we have is getting stuff up there. Once it's up there, things are much easier. Colonizing the moon will be simpler and Mars may not be that far off. But so what? How can anyone make money doing this?

Well, the wealth of natural resources is obvious, but what's less obvious to people is the direct impact NASA has had on our lives today. Here's a short list of products that NASA research has directly developed or greatly improved:

  • Air quality monitors used in smokestacks
  • Better structural analysis technologies
  • Energy efficient insulation
  • Freeze-dried food
  • Machinery lubricants
  • Many new medical techniques
  • New hydroponics techniques
  • Scratch resistant lenses
  • Semiconductors
  • Smoke detectors
  • Solar energy
  • Water purification systems
  • Weather forecasting

And that's with our limited exposure to space and space research. With living in working in space full-time, we stand to gain a wealth of knowledge in pharmaceuticals, nano-technology, plasma physics, physiology, weather forecasting, materials research, etc. Of course, some might think that we will be better served to have this knowledge in the hands of a couple of privately held companies, but anyone with a basic knowledge of economics is aware that there are serious problems associated with monopolies and oligopolies. The problem is, if our government doesn't find some way to deal with this issue, there's going to be no way to prevent it.

Imagine a company named Corporate Aerospace. They've created super-strong nano-tech carbon micro-tubules that are worth a fortune in building space elevators, stronger buildings, virtually impenetrable armor plating, etc. They want to sell this to everyone and the US says "no." So what do they do? They declare themselves an independent nation. Now the political situation gets dicey. Their offices may be located in space, so it's tough to claim jurisdiction over them. Other nations will quite happily trade with them in exchange for access to space and future technologies and yet other nations might start thinking "hey, we have top-secret satellites up there that Corporate Aerospace can start looking at." Not only will the geopolitical situation be tricky, but the US stands to lose a huge new source of revenue if this comes to pass.

Now put yourself in the position of the board of directors of Corporate Aerospace. Instead of paying taxes to a government, you can be the government. New nations in space are inevitable once we continue to expand there, so why not be first? No longer will you need to worry about silly permits limiting where you can and cannot develop. You can solicit any investors you want for any project you're interested in. If you have the economic clout to entice nations with your technological and resource riches, you'll be a brand-new nation.

I expect that by the time I die (assuming I live a normal lifespan) that we will have at least one permanent outpost on the moon and at least one permanent space station with gravity simulated by rotation. Whether or not we have an attempt at creating corporate nations up there depends upon how serious governments seriously throw their efforts into utilizing space and whether or not there is enough competition out there. Personally, I can't wait and I have to admit that I'd take a corporate nation in space over no significant human presence there. Regrettably, I'll probably be too old to live there.

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