Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lawyers, Government, And Laws, O My! Impressions of ISDC 2006.

We don't like you. We really, really don't like you.

The message comes through loud and clear at space conferences that people who really, really want to go to space, really, really dislike the government. And NASA? Don't even go there! Space entrepreneurs seem to hate that government got to space first. They think government is doing space all wrong. And they claim they could do the job so much better, if only government would get out of the way.

The anti-government attitude showed itself at Space Ship One's X-Prize flights two years ago when somebody made a sign that read, "Space Ship One, Government Zero." We won't dwell on it for too long, but "one to zero" is not the correct score. Here's an estimate of the real score of government flights of humans into space (100 km) versus private sector flights:

NASA, about 147 --- including two X-15 flights, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Shuttle;

Private sector, 3.

Not to overly praise government, however. Its recent track record is not so good and space entrepreneurs are moving forward with their private space programs.

Despite all their disdain of government, space entrepreneurs still seem to want the government's money. "Give us the money and we'll give you the rockets, just keep your pesky rules and regulations to yourself," is their message to government. It's no wonder they love the idea of government funded prizes.

ITAR

Berin Szoka is a very smart young lawyer. He runs the Institute for Space Law and Policy. (Here.) He gave the best talk on a strategy for reforming ITAR one could ever hear. It boils down to Mr. Clinton's old campaign slogan about affirmative action or welfare, whichever it was, "mend it, don't end it." Szoka's slogan is a better one, "An ITAR that works for America." It's probably more sincere, as well. In either event, his bottom line is that spacers need to stop trying to kill ITAR and start thinking of ways to convince the powers that be in Congress to fix it for the good of America.

Go to any space conference and you'll hear constant complaints about ITAR and how it makes it so hard for American space entrepreneurs to do business. The horror stories are compelling but after a while the constant complaints become a very off-putting whine. The question then comes to mind, even to a supporter of space entrepreneurship: "Don't these people care about America's national security?" Szoka's strategy for reform aims to nip that impression in the bud.

Who ya gonna call?

At the ISDC Szoka ran the legal track of discussions. The legal track included great topics that were unfortunately sparsely attended. The talk by adventure sports lawyer Tracey Knutson should be required listening for anybody who hopes to launch people into space and avoid liability when something eventually goes wrong. (Here.) But few attended.

There's probably a reason for the sparse attendance. One, there are the really cool view graphs of spaceships and hardware at the other talks. At the legal talks, what viewgraphs there are typically have words, lots and lots of words. And not just regular English words or even whizbang rocketry words. No, we're talking legalese. Who wants that?

The more likely reason is that many spacers don't like government, but arguably they dislike lawyers even more. Maybe if they ignore them, the lawyers and government will just go away. In fact, Pete Worden got some appreciative laughs with a few lawyer jokes during his luncheon talk on Sunday. One joke suggested that even one lawyer in space was too many.

Yet during his talk Worden said an important requirement for opening the Moon to economic development is the right to own private property on the moon. He acknowledged not being a lawyer but said his understanding was that the Outer Space Treaty didn't bar private property ownership on the Moon.

If Worden or the audience had attended Szoka's comprehensive and insightful talk on private property rights in space under the OST, he and his audience might have learned that owning real property on the Moon is not going to be as easy as he and they think. However, mining its resources, possessing enough territory to mine those resources, and selling the resources are all legally possible even under the OST.

So let the lawyer jokes continue. Lawyer jokes are the price lawyers pay to run the world. Just remember, if you're not satisfied with one world, do you think lawyers are? And who do you think you're going to have to call when you're finally ready to stake a legal claim to a platinum group metal asteroid or helium 3 on the Moon?

-tdr

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Comments:
Fine post. Any look at New Space or alt.space or whatever you want to call it has to take into account the broad ideological shift from 1961 (when nothing could be better than the best and brightest working on a top-down national endeavor) to the Reagan-and-after years, when government is assumed to screw up everything it touches, and no matter what the problem is, the solution is always "unleash the private sector."

I have an uneven streak of sympathy with that, but in some quarters it has grown into an idee fixe that NASA, ITAR, etc. are the biggest obstacles to entrepreneurial space. No -- the biggest obstacles have always been money and technology, with politics and policies way way down the list.

On lawyers generally: you must have noticed that people always deplore lawyers acting like junkyard dogs when they see it in this or that case in the news or a legislative dust-up -- but when they retain a lawyer in their own interest, they want the most aggressive, uncompromising mutt they can find...
 
The more likely reason is that many spacers don't like government, but arguably they dislike lawyers even more. Maybe if they ignore them, the lawyers and government will just go away.

I've never felt that way; but I'm new to the idea that space just might - with care and finesse - become just a place and not an exotic destination visited by an elect few.

It has not escaped my notice that (for example) a number of really important irrigation projects in the West at the turn of the 20th century were proposed. Few proceeded beyond the 'good idea' stage until a lawyer or legally trained business guy was either in charge or near the top.

I'd like to think that if I'd been at ISDC I would have attended the legal talks. Perhaps in Dallas we'll see if I can avoid the lure of the shiny toys in favor of stuff than counts.
 
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