2011 marks the 42’nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 42 idiot infested years have passed since that glorious day and nothing that has happened since comes within a nautical league of matching it. My vile boomer generation has downplayed the significance of space exploration for decades. I remember getting a shrill lecture from my left leaning fifth grade teacher about what a waste of money the space program was. Being a self-assured child so I told my teacher he was preening unimaginative Neanderthal. This landed me in detention but I refused to apologize.
Manned space flight has been in a depressing, decades long, holding pattern. The real advances in space exploration have come exclusively from unmanned probes and robots. While astronauts have been going round and round in that orbiting boondoggle known as the International Space Station the Voyagers are on the brink of interstellar space, probes are on their way to Pluto and Mercury, Cassini is orbiting Saturn, a small armada of orbiters and crawlers are exploring Mars, low-budget missions discovered water on the moon, space telescopes like Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer have shown us wonder after wonder and, capping it all off, WMAP determined the age of the entire frigging universe. Compare these awesome achievements to ISS astronauts unplugging zero-G toilets.
Why has so little been accomplished? I can think of two good reasons.
- Exclusive government control
- The UN Space Treaty
Until recently only governments could afford space programs. In the early days of space exploration government control made sense but that era is coming to an end. In a few decades private entities will be able to mount manned Mars expeditions and send robots anywhere in the solar system and beyond. The technology is coming along nicely but I am afraid the politics will soon be a gigantic millstone around our necks. The millstone takes the form of the absurd UN Space Treaty.
The UN space treaty is another sorry artifact of the 1960’s. It reads like a bunch of unwashed socialist hippies got together and decided to ban capitalism in space. There is no other way to explain ridiculous terms like:
- The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.
- Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
- States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities.
- States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.
- States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.
Suppose some daring entrepreneur decides to mount an asteroid mining expedition. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Asteroids are relatively easy to get to and very easy to get off of. They also contain mountains of valuable rare earths, platinum and gold. Eros alone holds well over 20 trillion dollars of metals. You could pay off the US national debt by mining one dinky asteroid! One day, not very long from now, robot asteroid mining will make a compelling business case. To bad the UN Space Treaty outlaws it.
If you have to pay off all of mankind (#1, #2) your compelling business case evaporates. Environmentalists, (yeah space environmentalists), would complain that mining damages and contaminates a celestial body (#4, #5). Finally, even if the operation was 100% privately funded, various governments could legally ransom our daring entrepreneur or shut him down (#3). These tactics have already been tried. Remember the hysteria that preceded the launch of Cassini. A pack of morons decided that the Plutonium powered RTG on Cassini posed a grave threat to all mankind and started citing the UN Space Treaty in hopes of blocking the launch. Cassini was not a money-making operation so we ignored the loons. Asteroid mining will be another thing all together. Everyone will want their cut. With the UN in charge we’re going to feel like the probed subjects in this Kids in Hall video.