New lunar time zones reinforce importance of keeping regulators earthbound

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Maybe when actually applied to the blackness of space, regulatory dark matter can be a good thing.

Joe Biden this week directed NASA to collaborate with other agencies in establishing time standards for the Moon.

This move comes in reaction to challenges posed by lunar gravitational interactions with other celestial bodies. These can create temporal asynchronies for governments and private entities involved in space exploration and (potentially) commerce.

As I wrote over at Forbes, what is being called Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC; yes, the letters are out of sequence) is deemed essential by the Office of Science and Technology Policy for synchronizing operations and ensuring reliability in transactions and logistics undergirding the nascent commercial space sector.

At first blush the directive seems consistent with established provisos such as the Outer Space Treaty and the Artemis Accords among nations on space exploration.  

One hopes that a standardized lunar time system, thought of in this setting as a nascent exercise of appropriate rule of law (leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure Biden asked Congress for approval) could catalyze privatization and property rights in space, along with the development of safety procedures, liability and insurance standards, and bonds and warranties that protect both the earthbound and space-faring.

These risk-management measures would comprise forms of wealth that could be overridden by continuing to allow governmental dominance of the space show, increasing the risk of harm and undermining legitimate regulation that cannot happen without market disciplines. The proper pricing of risk in such manner is also necessary to picking the proper targets for exploration and commercial operations in the first place.

The capacity for gauging lunar time more precisely, therefore, marks a moment in history that ought to give symbolic “pause” for policymakers to set about countering the dominance of governmental projects and partnerships in space-faring concerns. Outer space is a blank slate (rather, blank spheres) to which we have not fully extended federal regulatory tentacles. The perhaps unexpected explicit affirmation of commerce by emergent LTC invites us to prioritize permissionless innovation.

Grave challenges persist in assuring that regulators relinquish inappropriate controls over space commercialization, however. The historical legacy of tight regulatory authority in earthbound heavy industries, and the recent escalation in infrastructure, energy and technology subsidies with regulatory strings attached serve as warning.

As it stands, the proliferation of regulations, hefty government contracts, and public-private partnerships pose significant threats to the development of commercial space ventures that resemble laissez-faire, and stand to impede the evolution of risk-management innovations. It is imperative that Congress prevent overregulation here.

The establishment of Coordinated Lunar Time can mark a symbolic milestone in the journey toward defending private collaborative space endeavors from bureaucratic dominance and interference.

It’s time. Ahem: I mean, it’s LTC.