Newt’s Moon Mines

Over at National Review Online today, I have some thoughts on the little dust up between Newt and Mitt Saturday night on space policy:

Asked how his policy positions differed from those of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney surprisingly offered as his first example something space-related: “We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon. I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.”

As I note over there, Romney’s statement implies that this “lunar colony” would be a government-funded project. It also implies that he knows just what “kind of money” it would entail. But as I explain, Gingrich doesn’t (at least explicitly) propose any such thing and has in fact been quite critical of NASA, dismissing it as too “bureaucratic.”

There are government policies that could be put into place to encourage the private sector (and at least as importantly, reduce the amount of discouragement) to settle and mine the moon without requiring massive expenditure of taxpayer funds. In fact, CEI will be publishing an Issue Analysis soon on legislation that would create real property rights in space, an issue that has been in limbo since the passage of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which outlawed off-planet claims of national sovereignty. The 1979 Moon Treaty explicitly outlaws private property in space, but no space-faring nation is a signatory. Absent such property rights, it is difficult if not impossible to raise the funds for extraterrestrial business ventures.

There are other things that would help enable mines on the moon and other places that would be no cost. A reform of the International Trade in Arms Regulation would reduce the regulatory burden on the space industry and create opportunities for new customers in the international market. Extending the current moratorium of regulations on spaceflight passenger safety would not only cost nothing, but save money by freeing up FAA resources of other things, while removing uncertainty for fledgling launch companies. Working to get the Montreal Convention on aviation liability limitation extended to spaceflight could reduce industry concerns about lawsuits, particularly for public companies with deep pockets such as Boeing.

There are some things that would accelerate the process that potentially do involve federal spending, such as development of basic technologies needed (e.g., closed-cycle life support, lunar materials processing, orbital storage and transfer of propellants, space-based nuclear power). If NASA were to invest more in these kinds of things, it would be performing the same role to nurture the space industry that its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, did for the aviation industry in the twenties through fifties. Taking the money for the wasteful Space Launch System, which isn’t going to give us moon bases, and transferring it to that sort of technology fund would be a much better use of NASA’s budget, but unfortunately the Congress doesn’t agree, at least for now.

But Mitt’s cheap slap at Newt was both a straw man, and a sign of a paucity of both vision and imagination.