Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Space Policy in the 21st Century:

The New Commons vs. A Sky Full of Enrons

By Daniel C. Smith

When Neil Armstrong took that first giant leap for humanity in 1969, he set our feet upon the path to a global society, truly one world and one people in possession of a common destiny for the first time in history. Most of us gazed at the moon in wonder, drinking deep in the joy that ‘we’ were on the moon-- yet for the most part oblivious to the plethora of benefits that the extension of our reach into the heavens yielded for all of us that share the Earth. Sadly, as we begin the twenty-first century our own national space program has deteriorated both in capability and in stature in the eyes of the public. The US shuttle program and the international space station have outlived their usefulness-- nothing more can be gained from their continued use. But as our government begrudgingly talks of taking the next step (most often Mars), private enterprise is blazing a trail that could lead to corporate domination of outer space.

It is my belief that allowing this encroachment into outer space by big business to continue unabated, especially if it leads to a domination or monopoly of the skies by corporate interests, is not only irresponsible but also immoral on the part of world governments.

While only a fool would believe that what the United States has already accomplished in space exploration could have been done without the technological innovation and industrial impetus from the private sector, one must realize that these things were accomplished in unison, government and industry working hand-in-hand, with industry sub-servant to government.

But I believe that we have witnessed a disturbing reversal in this relationship, especially in the last few decades. Money has become the dominating factor in politics, a trend that seems to benefit fewer and fewer people. Our elected officials serve the ones who can deliver the money in large enough increments as necessary to buy victory, hence the role reversal between government and industry. Of course money has always been the mothers-milk of American politics, but in the last half-century the amount of money necessary to win in the political arena has virtually served to eliminate the influence of the ‘little guy’, the individual contributor and actual constituent to whom the elected official is supposed to represent.

Therein lies the irresponsibility and immorality of our supposedly representative government (s); not to realize the potential benefits of a human presence in space and to fully exploit that presence for the people of whom those governments supposedly represent is a dereliction of duty on their part and to further allow control of these potential benefits to be co-opted by a few faceless, unaccountable multi-national corporations is immoral.

Yet this is exactly what is happening; juxtapose the current trends of budget cuts by most space-faring governments worldwide and waning public support for space exploration with the almost exponential increase in private funding for space related projects in the last two decades and it is obvious that there is new space race a foot (Berinstein, Paula., 2005.).

But this is not a race between nations, nor is it even a race between corporations on a level playing field, but rather a race between public and private interests for control of the last frontier and any resources that potentially can be harvested from its depths, and it is a race that I believe that the public is losing at a cost so great as to be incalculable.

The implications of this new space race raise a legion of questions-- the first of which is obviously: just what exactly can an active space program, under the aegis of a representative government, do to improve the lives of human beings living today (the ones who would be asked to pay for it)?

Our world today faces several of the most serious crises in our collective history, the most exigent of which is the continuing devastation of our environment; from the oceans to the prairies, our planet is undergoing possibly cataclysmic changes which could forever alter our way of life. There is a great deal of research being conducted in outer space concerning these problems, research that has not only increased our understanding of the causes leading to the deterioration of our eco-system, but research which can also perhaps lend itself to prevention and even reversal of the negative effects of human activity upon the planet. Phenomenon such as deforestation and the greenhouse effect are being closely monitored by both manned and unmanned craft in near-Earth orbit; our presence in space has proven invaluable in not only identifying these two problems, but it is believed that further research can lead to an understanding of cause and perhaps even provide clues as to how to reverse the damage already done (NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 2005.).

We can further curb the damage that we naturally cause just by our presence by moving some of our very necessary activities into outer space. Industrial processes which are unclean (and even dangerous) on Earth would have no negative impact in space and the technological spin-offs of the space program continue to propel the utility, communications, and transportation industries into the future. These same advancements also continue to elevate our lifestyle are also being utilized to make education more accessible to more people than ever before-- a truly global effort could make illiteracy a thing of the past (Congressional Publication: Civilian Space Stations.... 1984.).

But the consequences of exploring outer space extend beyond the cell phones and the recent advancements in technology that made it possible (and desirable) for every home to have a personal computer. Already research into industrial processes which cannot occur on Earth have already given researchers a better understanding of fluid physics and combustion science, which in turn has provided us with new insights in the area of energy conservation. Furthering our studies of combustion science could lead to more efficient heating units on Earth; each two percent increase in heating efficiency alone save consumers in the United States alone over eight billion dollars a year and helps to conserve rapidly depleting resources. As another example (again, out of hundreds), the science of metallurgy has already been greatly advanced by space research, and the environment of space will allow for creation of stronger alloys which could not be manufactured on Earth. Robotic systems, originally developed for space exploration, easily lend themselves to increased production on Earth (NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 1995.).

Still, futurists and visionaries offer other, more ambitious, plans to help solve the Earth's ecological and other impending crisis’ from space. Other planets (including the asteroids and any passing comet) could eventually be mined for minerals, alleviating the demands on our own over-taxed resources. Take, for instance, the most basic element of life, water. Although seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, only point-zero-three percent of this water is available to us as drinking water; given the current levels of pollution finding its way into the water table (much of it generated from mining), is it so far-fetched to think that one day humanity might be forced to turn to the icy rings of Jupiter and Saturn for water? (Asimov, Isaac. 1975.)?

Of course a discussion of all of the geo-political crises confronting us today would be incomplete without considering the ever-present threat of terrorism. While many believe that what we are witnessing today is simply the inevitable clash of cultures, the ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’ (Barber, Benjamin J.; 1995) predicted by many political scientists in the eighties and nineties, I believe that by accepting today’s state of the world as inevitable is to surrender without a fight, and that is simply the worst sort of defeat.

Who can argue that perhaps the best way to combat the evil that is terrorism is (to paraphrase US President George W. Bush) to build a world in which terrorism cannot ‘flourish and thrive’? Terrorism is the tool of the oppressed, the disenfranchised or worse, those without any hope that tomorrow will be better than today. While putting human beings back in space on a full-time basis alone will not magically end terrorism, what better way to begin to build not just a global society, but a global community, a world in which all nations are given an equal chance to participate in the conquest of space and to reap, in a truly equitable fashion, the rewards of their collective efforts to push the frontiers of our existence ever outward?

But what about aggressive nation-states-- countries that still seek to expand by conquest? How long could such a government maintain power in the face of rapidly spreading prosperity in which they do not allow their own population to share? The industrial and technological infrastructure of the defense industries of all countries on the Earth could easily be adapted to space-related purposes, producing not weapons of mass destruction but vehicles of exploration and craft that can mine the skies for the riches now within our reach.

To treat the wealth of space as just another market to be cornered by those corporate entities aggressive enough to undercut the competition is to rob every generation that will come after us of their rightful heritage, and the continued practice of allowing wealth to be concentrated in the hands of the few can only further exacerbate the frustrations of those who count themselves among the dispossessed.

The underlying cause of many of the problems listed above is hunger, and the world hunger issue consists of two components: production, and distribution.

The use of artificial satellites by the US has led to greatly increased crop yields in the past few decades. Satellites are able to scan large areas of land within a very short time, measuring a variety of factors including the status and conditions of crops, soil droughts, rainfall, snow-cover, etc., and this data allows for more efficient utilization of the land by increasing watershed control, the use of fertilizers, field and crop selection, and harvest planning (NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 2004.).

If such a system of satellites were developed by an international coalition and equipped with earth resources sensors and working within a single framework for worldwide agricultural improvement, the increased crop yields would be on the order of several billion dollars (satellites have also been utilized to more efficiently harvest the bounty of our oceans and have aided in their ecological protection) (Stuhlinger, Dr. Ernst. 1996.).

Distribution, of course, is another matter; distribution depends more on international cooperation than any single technological or logistical factor. But again, what better way to build not just a global society but a community than by exploiting the benefits of space for all of the people on Earth by a new, aggressive program for the development of this satellite network. This satellite network should be the first major space project of the twenty-first century; while not as glamorous as going to Mars, the benefits far outweigh such a journey (however spectacular the thought) at this time. Not only are the benefits of increased food production obvious, but building and deploying the satellites as well as tackling the problem of distribution will go a long ways toward building that sense of community among global entities, which is so important as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Historically speaking, nothing has proven more effective in generating international good-will than the space program-- remember when the Soviet Union voluntarily went to a radio blackout so as not to interfere with any signals from Apollo 13? Or when they deployed as many ships as they had available to the vicinity to aid in search and rescue? This was at the height of the cold war, and less than five years later the United States and the Soviet Union shook hands in orbit of the planet that they both shared in common on the first ever joint mission by the world’s two biggest and most aggressive adversaries, Apollo-Soyuz (Shepard, Slayton, 1994.).

So you see, it is not really a question of how can we afford to fund space exploration in the face of all of our collective problems, but rather, how can we afford not to?

With the benefits of our presence in space clear, next we must ask ourselves whether or not there is a difference between public and private interests and just what could be the harm in allowing private interests to control the advancement of humanity into space?

Our solar system is full of resources that belong to everyone as a matter of “public trust”, resources which, as explained earlier, can be a great benefit to humanity and I propose that ‘we the people’ should begin to think of space as the new commons-- not just as a milieu for science fiction writers and filmmakers but as a reservoir of wealth and information which is the heritage of all people on Earth.

The concept of “public trusts” or commons is not a new one, nor is it socialist dogma; in fact, it has been a central theme of democratic societies since the idea of ‘government by consent of the governed’ was born. Ancient Rome's Code of Justinian guaranteed the use to all citizens of the "public trust" or commons -- those shared resources that cannot be reduced to private property -- the air, flowing water, public lands, wandering animals, fisheries, wetlands and aquifers (Mackay, 2005.).

In the early thirteenth century, when King John began selling off England's fisheries and erecting navigational tolls on the Thames, his subjects rose up and confronted him at Runnymede and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which included provisions guaranteeing the rights of free access to fisheries and waters. England passed clean-air laws in the fourteenth century that made it a capital offense to burn coal in London, and violators were executed for the crime (Churchill, 1965.).

Such concepts and documents are where our own Founding Fathers turned for inspiration when they forged the Constitution of the United States, and these "public trust" rights to unspoiled air, water and wildlife descended to the people of the United States following the American Revolution. Until 1870, a factory releasing even small amounts of smoke onto public or private property was operating illegally.

But these rights were usurped from the people during the Gilded Age of the robber baron which swept across the world in the wake of the industrial revolution. Much of the natural resources and public lands in our own country changed form public to private hands during this time in history. Fortunes multiplied exponentially almost overnight, and those monies were used to plant the seeds of the Corpocracy which has manipulated politics and politicians alike for the benefit of a very few throughout the twentieth century, especially in some of the more industrialized nations (Zinn, Arnove, 2004.).

Today we find ourselves in the midst of the digital information revolution which has worked to unite the world in many ways and has created a new sense of globalism, yet as the world is drawn more tightly together by the threads of technology it is also bursting at the seams with near-ancient tribal and nationalistic hostilities (Hough, Jerry.; 1995). The end result of this wave of globalization has not been a better, safer and more inclusive and equitable world; instead we have witnessed the birth of the multi-national corporation, and in many instances these corporations are proving to be as powerful as governments. The major difference of course is that corporations are not beholden to an electorate, which is one of the very few saving graces of government.

Ultimately, as the sub-title of this essay suggests, the image of corporate-controlled space exploration begs the question: Do we want a sky full of Enron’s (of course Enron is being used here as a metaphor for the corporate malfeasance which has for far too long wreaked havoc on our environment). Consider, as just one of thousands possible examples of profit-driven neglect, the recalcitrance of the major oil companies (Chevron, Exxon, etc.) to invest in double-hulled ships to transport crude. The costs would be minimal compared to the cleanup costs of an oil spill, yet the industry refuses to take such a basic step to protect the very environment which produces their product. Are these the people that we want to be in charge of transporting nuclear wastes into the depths of outer space (if you do not believe that people will support transporting irradiated cargo into space then you don’t live in Nevada!)?

One of my favorite stories concerning corporate corruption (drawn from today’s headlines) features a very large US company being investigated for overcharging the government (that means you and I) for meals for the US military while in Iraq. Just think about that for a moment-- do you want a company that would overcharge soldiers for food during a war for which they are the most immediate beneficiary given dominion over the skies above the heads of you and your loved ones?

Lastly, because we know the question will be asked we must ask: What right do world governments (or even a collective body of nations) have to deny (or even to regulate) corporate entry into space?

Precedent, a longstanding canon of both national and international law, and moral obligation all serve to validate government sponsorship and regulation of any space program.

For the United States, the promise of benevolent exploitation of the resources of space lie in the very roots of the program, beginning with the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. This legislation clearly outlined America’s intentions in outer space as peaceful and determined that the benefits reaped by the space program were to be shared-- in fact, the act encouraged international cooperation and mutually beneficial ventures (Gibney Frank B.; Feldman, George J.; 1965.). The United Nations quickly followed suit, forming the Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The U.N. also issued a series of resolutions calling for the adherence to a general set of principals governing space exploration and extended already existing international laws into what it termed the “commons” of space (Matsuura, Kumiko.; 1992).

The common heritage of humanity is ours, but we must claim it.

But of course, how to go about it? What can the average individual do?

First, let us realize that in all actuality, neither our own government nor the United Nations has any real space policy for the 21st century-- and with all of the pressing domestic and international issues confronting our leaders’ everyday, there likely never will be.

The first step is to increase public awareness by any way possible-- we must make it an issue. Write editorials to your local or school papers, attend political forums and ask those running for office if they have thoughts on the issue, write to those who are currently in office, volunteer for political campaigns and introduce the topic. Realize also that this issue is contingent upon many others-- we must fight for change on many fronts, the most crucial of which is limiting (or even eliminating) the amount of money that corporate interests can pollute our political process with (i.e., campaign finance reform) is imperative to taking back both our government and our future.

The danger of the influence of big money upon our government could prove to be exceptionally dangerous in this last space race; the very junior senator from my own home state of Kansas, Sam Brownback, reacted to the successful launch and single low-orbit of a small craft not much more advanced than the old Mercury capsules by China by declaring that “…America must dominate the Earth-moon orbit at all costs…”. He further suggested the introduction of weapons platforms into outer space-- presumably to keep the Chicoms from gaining a foothold in the Sea of Tranquility. Such a course of action would require (by senate ratification) the abrogation of several international treaties that have been in place since the conception of NASA and would most assuredly draw an unfavorable reaction from the rest of the world. A close look at the senators campaign contributors reveal several corporate contributors-- including some of the very corporations that would very definitely benefit from another arms race.

Of course I do not mean to single out a fellow Kansan; the truth is that there is not one politician in Washington who has not taken in more money from corporate sources than from the people of their district. Awash in corporate cash, politicians today seem eager to surrender their responsibility of leadership in the area of space exploration and, even more importantly, their specific and crucial function of providing legislative oversight for the very industries now pushing development in that area.

This is another vital area of reform that we the people must insist upon. Ask yourself: why does the person who represents you take donations from corporate entities far outside the district with no vested interest in your city or town?

Simple: they have a ‘vested interest’ in your representative.

Another vital area of reform necessary to curb corporate influence upon our government (and slow the invasion of outer space by big business) is by adapting tighter restrictions on the employment of our former representatives by lobbying firms; when we the people do actually displace an incumbent, we do so because we want them out of Washington-- yet they remain in place, often with more power and influence than they had as part of the legislative or even the executive branch.

Support candidates who believe in the necessity of these issues-- and by more than just voting if you can-- volunteer when and if possible.

Change is never quick or easy (or even pleasant), but it can, and does happen. But most often, any real change (at least in American politics) has to begin at what is known as the ‘grass roots’ level-- that means ordinary people like you and I. An ancient Chinese proverb teaches us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and while the future and space travel can seem light-years away, it gets closer with each passing day. If we are to reclaim our future, we must move beyond the momentary excitement generated by the accomplishments of those who probe into outer space from the private sector (many of whom are well intentioned) and instead help to forge public policy that is both responsible and fair. It will not be easy, but it must happen because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

We will reach Mars (and beyond), and when we do, we will be able to build new, better worlds for humanity because we will have already taught ourselves how first here on Earth.

Works Cited

  • Asimov, Isaac. Today, Tomorrow, and…; pub. By Dell Publishing, 1975.
  • Barber, Benjamin J.; Jihad vs. McWorld; and Hough, Jerry F.; America’s Russia Policy: The Triumph of Neglect; from World Politics, 1995. Edited by Purkitt, Helen E.; pub. By Brown and Benchmark.
  • Berinstein, Paula.; Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them; Medford Press, 2005.
  • Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer.; Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People; arranged for volume one by Henry Steele Commager, Dodd, Mead, 1965.
  • Congressional Publication: Civilian Space Stations and the U.S. Future in Space; Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology and Assessment, OTA-ST1-
  • 241, November, 1984.
  • Gibney Frank B.; Feldman, George J.; The Reluctant Space-Farers; Signet Books, 1965.
  • NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 1995.
  • NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 2004.
  • NASA Publication, N.p.: n.p., 2005.
  • Mackay, Christopher S.; Ancient Rome: A Political and Military History; Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Matsuura, Kumiko.; Chronology and Fact Book of the United Nations; Oceana Publishing, 1992.
  • Shepard, Alan.; Slayton, Deke.; Moonshot; Turner Publishing, 1994.
  • Stuhlinger, Dr. Ernst.; WHY EXPLORE SPACE?; copyright PROMETHEUS 1996.
  • White, Frank,; The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution; Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
  • Zinn, Howard.; Arnove, Anthony.; Voices of a People’s History; Seven Stories Press, 2004.

© 2007; Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over one hundred short stories and poems in various publications and anthologies, including Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Scifaikuest and AlienSkin. Recently he won an honorable mention in the 18th Annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for poetry.

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