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The New Space Race, Privatization is Key

The Obama Administration’s 2010 space strategy, which encouraged commercial firms to develop the capability to fly US astronauts into space, did recognize that private industry will be the driver of space exploration. The problem, however, is that human launch capability is not that intrinsically valuable a service. True, we need it to put astronauts into the International Space Station, where they produce marginally valuable scientific research and watch the World Cup. But that still falls into the “expensive curiosity” label that killed the Space Shuttle. Even a human visit to Mars or a permanent human presence on the moon would not be much more than a milestone for the human race, which – though laudable – is not the most alluring incentive for government or private cash. But what if space exploration companies could be offered property rights for the resources they extract as well? Private property rights are a mainstay of economic development theory. This would in one stroke encourage far-seeing corporations to invest in space development projects that are virtually guaranteed to have a long-term (indeed, almost infinite) reward. One that’s already in the market is Planetary Resources, a new asteroid-mining company supported in part by Google’s CEOs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. Given the right policy support, others would be quick to join it. Then it’s California in 1849, and the gold rush is on. The US should thus make an explicit promise to space entrepreneurs: if they pay US taxes, follow to-be-created US environmental regulations, and share their technology with the government, the government will defend their claim diplomatically and legally. NASA in this model would play the role of a regulator and information repository, and possibly an R&D lab for US companies. They’d need it, because other countries would be upset. Operating in the quirky netherworld of never-put-to-the-test space law, the US would be essentially creating customary law on the fly. To smooth the transition, it could also offer a diplomatic incentive: that it would defend the claims of foreign companies whose countries recognize US claims. More via Yahoo Finance.

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