Ex astris scientia

Monday, 24 September 2007 — 9:59pm | Science

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the University of Alberta’s Space Exploration Symposium (ExpressNews article here). I’ve been away from physics for a few years now, so the minutiae of the graduate research on display sailed over my head, but I managed to attend the two keynotes.

The first was a presentation by Dr. Jaymie Matthews (UBC) on the MOST space telescope and its involvement in the search for and study of exoplanets like the potentially habitable Gliese 581 c, as well as its striking resemblance to SpongeBob SquarePants. The second talk, delivered by Dr. Mark Lemmon (Texas A&M), concerned the Phoenix Mars Mission and how they plan to study the permafrost subsurface of the Martian Arctic.

The symposium was, on the whole, a stellar reminder of just how advanced we are as a society and a species when we let the scientists do their job, so long as they aren’t being silly.

Unfortunately, there is a massive chasm between scientists and policy-makers in every discipline and every stratum of society, in part because of the divergence between their educational paths. As Carl Sagan remarked in The Demon-Haunted World, there hasn’t been a scientifically literate U.S. President since Thomas Jefferson. And when it comes to space exploration, the political absurdities boggle the mind.

The star of the space policy circus is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. As John Hickman explains in today’s edition of The Space Review, it’s high time for states to withdraw from the treaty and lay it to rest.

For those of you who don’t know, the Outer Space Treaty is one of five UN documents that constitute the framework of international space law. It covers everything from weaponization to national liabilities, but its general thrust is that space is, like international waters, res communis: everybody owns it, and none of it is subject to a sovereign claim.

I initially researched the idea of abolishing or withdrawing from the treaty when preparing for a debate tournament two years ago, and the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that it has to go. Hickman’s article explains it a lot better than I can, but I feel compelled to add a few thoughts of my own.

While it’s obvious the Outer Space Treaty has to go, if only because it would be nice to see some space colonies in my lifetime that aren’t just the functional equivalent of Antarctic research bases, we can’t simply tear it up and be done with the whole affair. Something needs to take its place. Let’s say the United States were to withdraw from the treaty today: you just know that someone is immediately going to accuse them of doing it so they can put nuclear weapons in orbit. There needs to be some legal framework in place to retain some of the clauses in the treaty that do make sense (like the prohibition on stationing WMDs anywhere), and address the intent of others that aren’t objectionable in principle.

For instance, we should probably consider having some kind of protection in terms of conservation, not necessarily because we expect Martian colonists to destroy the environment like we’re doing down here, but because scientific study requires it. It’s analogous to how there’s a scientific incentive to preserve the Amazon rainforest because biodiversity inherently contributes to research in biology and genetics. Similarly, linguists document and preserve dying languages because linguistic diversity contributes to what we know about the structure and evolution of natural languages.

At the Phoenix Mars Mission talk, Dr. Lemmon fielded several questions about the tests and controls that would ensure the soil sampling experiments remained as experimentally valid as possible. When designing experiments, scientists really do have to consider everything. How do you protect the lander’s onboard camera from dirt that the soil collection scoop might throw into the air? How do you keep the samples intended for one bucket or oven from contaminating the others? How do you ensure that seemingly present organics or oxidants didn’t come with your equipment from Earth? While opening the door to sovereign and private exploration provides incentive for development, one doesn’t want development to start interfering with scientific studies.

With uninhabited moons and planets, though, we’re dealing with geological features that are likely to outlast the human race. We don’t need to treat them delicately across the board. Here in Alberta, we engage in considerable manipulation of the environment when it comes to oil sands exploration—a direct consequence of geological sciences. But we don’t see this impeding concurrent scientific studies. Part of it, though, is because certain areas and features that are ecologically and scientifically interesting, like the Columbia Icefield and Dinosaur Provincial Park, remain under protections at the provincial, federal and international levels. (It isn’t quite as enforceable as it could be—the damage tourists have inflicted on the Willow Creek hoodoos is atrocious—but once you’re on other celestial bodies, enforceability is a whole other can of worms anyway, so let’s set it aside for now.)

As Hickman puts it:

When the 1967 Outer Space Treaty eliminated the possibility that states could claim territory on the final frontier it also extinguished an important motivation for states and private firms to engage in exploration and development. Had the policy purpose of the treaty been wilderness preservation in outer space then today it would be declared a smashing success. Beyond low Earth orbit, outer space remains a wilderness that benefits no one except astronomers and stargazing lovers. Yet the ostensible policy purpose of the agreement was to encourage space exploration and development in a manner that benefits humanity as a whole. As such, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was an abysmal failure.

At present, comparing all of outer space to Antarctica is perfectly apropos, and the state of affairs itself is perfectly lamentable. In order to establish a permanent presence there at all, there needs to be a resource base, which entails mineral exploration and primary industry. The utility of doing habitability studies of Mars at all, beyond the purely scientific interest, is to see if we can establish a stable source of water. If that requires terraforming, someone will have to foot the bill and do it. That’s not going to happen without a major overhaul of space law.

The way things are going, bases on Mars will never amount to more than a much costlier iteration of the International Space Station, with a rotating permanent staff of a handful of astronauts and the occasional trillionaire tourist. The scientific benefit will still be pretty immense compared to what we have now, but we should set our sights higher than that. It’s nice to see that NASA has actually been looking into a permanent habitat on the moon, but in the long run, that won’t be enough. We should be building sustainable space colonies where people can work and live and dream. We should be sending poets.

The last major issue to take into account is the utopian idea of space science being for the good of all mankind, something that is intuitively admirable, but also the source of the Outer Space Treaty’s most glaring flaws. I think that in general, all science is for the good of all mankind, if only because it is the study of something bigger than ourselves that is out there waiting to be grasped.

We distinguish it from technology, or the application of that science, because it’s not until we get into the practicalities that ethical issues arise. As Richard Feynman often said, science doesn’t come with a user manual. Nuclear fission is a fact of life regardless of whether we use it to build a bomb, and the pursuit of genetics isn’t concomitant with the establishment of negative eugenics.

The preeminent worry, when it comes to opening the door to sovereign or private development, is that scientific discoveries will be kept under the covers as state or corporate secrets. This would be a bad thing, for the obvious reason that scientific progress rides heavily on interacting with other scientific progress elsewhere.

Technology provides an instructive example, though, in that we have a system of incentives for scientists and engineers to publish original methods and principles, but receive compensation for their application. Patent law is horribly broken in several places, but it’s generally the mechanics that are at issue. The principle of encouraging openness among scientists and engineers is a sound one.

If we hold the dissemination of scientific discoveries to be the end goal, then what we should really be looking at is where the obstacles to that already exist. Open access to peer-reviewed scholarly journals is one way to go, given that one of the emerging bottlenecks is how commercial journal publishers have been raising their subscription prices beyond what libraries can afford.

You may have noticed another hitch, in that individuals working for a private corporation are often contractually bound to release their accomplishments in a certain manner, and as part of that corporation’s intellectual property. That’s beyond the scope of this discussion. My stance is that if a certain company develops a viable method for, say, water production on Mars, they should by all means be entitled to patent protection and compensation. If a sovereign power becomes a dominant energy producer on another planet, they should by all means be able to export that energy in exchange for something in return, if they so wished.

It’s telling that Google is sponsoring the Lunar X Prize. For one thing, Google is poaching the top intellectuals in computing science from academia all over the place, but everyone benefits on the whole: the scientists get access to Google’s computing resources for their research, and Google’s end-user services get better and better. For another, it tells us that private corporations are able and willing to act in the general interest of scientific and technological pursuits. The lesson here is that science doesn’t stop when researchers work for entities with profit motives.

By my count, we need to do three things. We need to scrap the Outer Space Treaty in order to lift restrictions on property claims (and by extension, property protection) on other celestial bodies. We need, in its place, a viable replacement that maintains essential provisions like the WMD ban, and establishes reasonable laws when it comes to matters such as conservation. We also need to encourage sovereign or private bodies to release their scientific discoveries—and I would argue that they generally do so already unless there’s a compelling interest to keep secrets, as in the case of military technology.

On a penultimate note, The Space Review is a regular stop along my blog-perusing excursions, and for good reason: you’ll scarcely find a more thorough source of commentary about space policy anywhere. In addition to the Hickman piece, this week’s edition brings us a feature on film and television adaptations of Robert Heinlein and a call for Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to be more open about its plans. The latter article speaks to one of the major concerns that are in play when it comes to the issues discussed in this post:

The team that Bezos has built has no obligation to provide the public with any information on its plans other than what it has to give to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in order to get a license to operate. Thanks to Jeff Bezos’ money they do not have to seduce investors or satisfy politicians or bureaucrats. They can just get on with the job with no distractions or pressure. In many ways it’s an ideal situation.

Yet for the space industry, and in the long term for Blue Origin itself, it might be wise for them to be a bit more forthcoming about their long-term plans. The aerospace industry in general and the RLV industry in particular has a well-developed informal feedback loop that allows for a certain degree of informed debate that sometimes shows itself to be of real value. By staying aloof from this community, the designers and builders of the New Shepard may be cutting themselves off from some useful ideas. There are limits on what any company wants to share with outsiders, but, taken to an extreme, secrecy is not a healthy thing.

I’ll end with a brief anecdote. When I heard about Wired‘s NASA slogan contest, I thought to myself, “Why would they ever replace Ex astris scientia?” It turns out I was a little confused. I remembered that Ex luna scientia was a motto for the Apollo programme (the Apollo 13 mission, to be specific), but it didn’t occur to me until I looked it up that the astris variant comes from Starfleet Academy.


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