Newt’s Lunar Base

Over at PJMedia, I discuss the technical, economic and political feasibility of what Newt proposes. But as I note there, the hardest part is the politics:

It would be a tough sell to a Congress that is used to directing space funds to its campaign contributors — a prize wouldn’t give them an adequate amount of control over where the money ended up. And even if a President Gingrich could get the support of Congress to establish such a prize, there would be no guarantee that a future Congress wouldn’t rescind it, creating a great deal of uncertainty and risk for someone who wanted to pursue it. A private prize can escrow the funds, but there’s no sure-fire way for a fickle U.S. government to do so, particularly in times of trillion-dollar deficits, because the Constitution doesn’t allow a Congress to commit a future Congress to an expenditure. A prize fund would always be at risk of being raided for some more “worthy” social objective.

But there’s another problem. When Speaker Gingrich proposes that the settlement eventually become a U.S. state, he is implicitly advocating withdrawal from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which explicitly prohibits claims of national sovereignty off planet. The treaty can be withdrawn from with one year’s notice (and in fact Bob Bigelow has been warning over the past year that the Chinese intend to do exactly that), but getting the State Department and Senate to go along with abandoning a long-standing treaty that we helped negotiate, and which performs a lot of other vital functions, may be a non-starter politically. Better perhaps would be the approach of the Space Settlement Institute, which proposes to have the U.S. recognize private claims of non-state actors, which could accomplish the goal of allowing property on the moon without the need to withdraw from the OST. It would also provide a tradable market in lunar real estate, allowing private settlement ventures to raise funds without the need for taxpayer money. It wouldn’t be a U.S. state, but it might be a settlement of Americans, with American values, which is probably what the former speaker’s goal is.

Of course, as I also note over there, step one is getting the nomination, and he didn’t seem to do himself any favors on that score last night.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has acquired his “Top Men” for space policy, and just made a speech at a Space Coast contractor’s facilities, full of meaningless patriotic blather. To the uninformed, his choice of advisers looks quite impressive, including the head of the Space Policy Institute (and former colleague and current friend), Scott Pace, and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin. The problem is, they were the architects of the failed Constellation Program. Griffin has made no secret of the fact that he’d like his old job back, and if Mitt wins, it likely means that Griffin would be reappointed to head up the agency, despite his disastrous tenure last time, in which vital cost-reducing technology programs were defunded to feed the insatiable maw of Constellation and the Webb Telescope. And sadly, because most in the Senate don’t care about space, other than those whose states have jobs in the industry, he’d likely be confirmed. It will be Ground Hog Day for NASA.

And if you’re interested in the background on this, I recommend my article on the space policy mess in this month’s issue of Reason magazine.

[Evening update]

It’s worth noting amidst all this space policy mess that today is the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo I fire, in which three astronauts lost their lives. Tomorrow will be the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Challenger loss. Combined with next week’s Columbia anniversary (nine years ago, on February 1st), late January tends to be a grim time for NASA.