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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Catapult 4 - Ideas in Conversation

  Points that came up in conversation.

1 - I asked what government regulatory changes would encourage the growth of British space industry.

   The reply was firstly that David Willets the Science minister has, to his considerable credit, removed most of the liability and double licencing rules which prevented development under the previous lot. Beyond that, for the longer term, what all humanity needs is the establishment of legal rights of ownership in space.

   The normal interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty 1967 which says explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet, claiming that they are the Common heritage of mankind. is that individual companies, who must operate under the laws of one of these countries, cannot have secure control either.  However, the State that launches a space object specifically retains jurisdiction and control over that object, which means that any base put on an asteroid and that means that if, say, a mine were established on the Moon that area would be usable only by the state or company that built it. It also strikes me that if an asteroid were captured and launched into a different orbit (the ultimate example being sending a million ton metallic asteroid, worth 10s of billions at a minimum) into an Earth orbit, that establishes ownership.

     Property rights are obviously necessary for any economic trading system. The weakness of such rights in so many 3rd world countries is accepted as a significant part of the reason they remain poor. 
In a study published in the CatoJournal, American economics professors Steve H. Hanke and Stephen J.K. Walters conclude that increased economic freedoms—such as private property rights, low tariffs, no price controls, and few state-owned enterprises—result in greater prosperity, improved life expectancy, and more equitable distribution of income
   But the same applies, probably more strongly, in areas of high technology. If lawlessness and lack of property rights is why Zimbabwe has an income less than 1/200th of Singapore, though they were equal 50 years ago, that suggests that the lack of such rights is a very large part of the reason that the private sector has been unable to industrialise space.

   I do not disagree with the space treaty's prevention of states occupying whole planets. Indeed having elsewhere supported not just a land value tax but a right to compulsary purchase such land at the valuation, I see permanent ownership of blocks of land as at least as much of a roadblock to economic progress as a benefit. I would limit ownership in space to about 100km from the location of the base (which would mean exclusive control of most asteroids). I would also consider a lease of of a century, maintainable only with continuous exploitation or occupation (with remotely handled vehicles exploitation without human occupation is a distinct propability|). Hong Kong was largely held on such a 100 tear lease and that obviously did not hinder its development. Any accountant will confirm that what happens to a property in 100 years is of absolutely no investment significance since any profits made after that period, compounded backwards will be effectively zero.

    In any case a new Space Treaty or Memorandum of interpretation among most of the spacegoing countries would have a strongly positive effect on space industrialisation.

    If Britain were to be determinedly pushing for such a revision it would show that we were serious about this industry and act as a significant spur to international companies in space development choosing where to locate, to choose us.

2 - In conversation about Britain's £265 million contribution to ESA the person I was talking to pointed out that ESA is a bureaucratic hole whose achievements are vanishingly small. He pointed out that the French and German "space programmes" which are both relatively substantial, but run in tandem within ESA have never achieved anything that anybody can name.

       I repeated an argument I have previously made - that compared to SpaceX or even the Russian space effort, NASA must be at least 90% wasteful and that since ESA has a budget, including the extra French and German programmes, half the size of NASA without achieving 1/4 as much, or indeed even having any prospect of getting a man off the ground in an ESA ship, they must be wasting at least 95% of the money they get.

     His response was that they weren't that good and it was closer to 100%.

    The point being that there is clearly a consensus that the money going to ESA is wasted (assuming it is intended to achieve something rather than merely pleasing European bureaucrats & a few companies with political friends).

    I think this is an appropriate point to bring in my submission to the Space Centre, that if this £265 million was put into a Space X-Prize Fund that this would mean we would get a multiple of that money usefully used rather than a vanishingly small percentage and Britain would be doing considerably better in space than NASA is. I have yet to find anybody who actually disputes it would work, though politicians willing to say it should be done are almost equally rare.

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