When President Bush announced the initiative to transform NASA
from a high tech, space taxi service into a latter day “Corps of Discovery” to take people back to the Moon, on to Mars, and beyond, a question was left unanswered. How can the program be politically sustained over several decades and over a number of Presidential administrations and Congresses?
Robert Walker, former member of Congress and member of the Aldridge Commission charged with coming up with a plan to implement the President’s initiative, said that for the initiative to become reality, “there has to be a public acceptance and a congressional buy-in.” Otherwise, if the initiative fails, he warned, “it will be another 20 or 30 years before another President will step out to make a statement again.”
Unfortunately, even though the budget allocated for the Vision for Space Exploration is modest and derived mainly from canceling old programs like the space shuttle, its opponents cite cost as a primary reason for not going through with it. In a speech given last year before the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert said, “Total federal non-security, domestic discretionary spending in fiscal 2005 is likely to increase by less than half a percent. Congress may even freeze spending, as the House voted to do in its Budget Resolution. In such a budget, should NASA receive almost a 6 percent increase? Is it the highest domestic spending priority? I don’t think so, and I doubt my colleagues will either.” In the era of three hundred billion dollar deficits, even modest increases to NASA’s budget to pay for the initiative may be a hard sale. And the President’s initiative and NASA in general competes against other programs. Boehlert said, “NASA is an appropriations bill in which it competes for funds against veterans programs, against housing programs, against environmental programs and against basic science and education programs – almost all of which are high priorities in my book.”
It is possible that, despite the objections raised by Boehlert and other members of Congress, the President’s initiative was passed and fully funded for the current fiscal year. Most Congressmen, even those who seem skittish about funding it, seemed to believe that going back to the Moon, on to Mars, and even beyond are worthy goals for the nation’s space program. But for the President’s initiative to be sustained, it has to be sold every year during Congress’s budget process for a period of decades. Given the vagaries of budget politics, meeting this challenge is, at best, a tall order.
This year, for instance, with the cost of the Iraq War still high and with demands to spend up to two hundred billion dollars to restore the Gulf Coast ravaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, suggestions to just cancel the President’s space exploration initiative are being raised again. Even if, as expected, these demands are beaten back, it will just be the first of many years of budget fights. Before astronauts even return to the Moon, thirteen years hence, the Vision for Space Exploration must navigate the shoals and tempests of budget politics. And that is not saying anything about going to Mars later in the century.
One solution to this problem would seem to be to find a funding source outside of general government revenues to sustain and perhaps even to argument the President’s space exploration initiative. If such a source could be created and capitalized enough to at least pay for the small increases necessary for a return to the Moon and expeditions to Mars and beyond, then selling the President’s initiative will be all the easier. Indeed, the slow pace of the initiative, with people not even returning to the Moon sooner than the later part of the next decade, could be accelerated if enough money could be found. The faster the initiative’s milestones can be accomplished, the fewer opportunities there will be for the plan to be derailed by some future political change of fortune.
Science writer Ken Silber, in an article in Techcentral.com, suggested financing the President’s space initiative with thirty-year space bonds. These bonds, similar to war bonds from World War II, would yield regular interest and would be traded on the open market.
The value of the bonds would be backed by a registry of space property rights. The United States would negotiate a treaty with other space faring nations allowing for recognition of these property rights and requiring the signatory nations to defend the rights of its own and other signatory countries’ citizens. Those property rights would include deeds for extraterrestrial land, mining rights, shares in lunar-based solar power utilities, or a portion of fees generated by other commercial ventures. Even if potential revenues from these property rights were far into the future, they would have value based on speculation on when and how they could be used. Over time, the bondholders would have the right to directly convert all or part of the principle of their space bonds into a property right.
Silber suggests that as NASA makes progress in returning people to the Moon and on to Mars, the value of these property rights would increase as the plausibility of their commercial value becomes more apparent. Thus, as NASA proceeds with its schedule of human missions to the Moon and beyond, and as the infrastructure to convey people and cargo from Earth to new destinations in the Solar System continues to grow, its space bond debt should decrease over time as more and more of the bonds get converted to space property rights.
Another virtue of Silber’s space bond scheme is that it neatly enables Robert Walker’s idea of a “buy in” for the space initiative. People in the United States and other countries that choose to join in the space initiative would not be passive observers of some big, government program. They would be active participants and investors in humankind’s spread from the Earth to the Moon, then to Mars and beyond. This joint ownership of the space initiative would buttress and stabilize public support over its decades long lifespan.
More importantly Silber’s idea links the imperatives of space exploration with space economic development and allows for the latter to pay for the former. Space exploration is thus no longer a driven by a program dependent upon government tax money and the shifting sands of politics. The implications of a space program divorced from politics and linked to economic development are profound in their potential benefit.