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Withdraw from Outer Space Treaty

guest column

After a contentious election cycle, the nation needs a new idea or program with broad support to help us abandon the vicious partisanship of the last year. President-elect Trump has wisely proposed two such programs: new spending to rebuild the nation’s decaying infrastructure and ethics reform to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington DC.

These plans will accomplish much, but the new administration can and should implement bigger and bolder ideas. First among them should be reinvigorating the American space program, which has been in a shameful state of decline under republican and democratic Presidents since the Apollo missions ended over 40 years ago. If the Trump administration chooses to do so, it can start with one measure which will yield substantial national benefits.

The Outer Space Treaty will turn 50 years old next year, and it has been the primary cause of the death of America’s ambition in space since the Apollo missions. The United States must unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, which quashes the incentives and benefits of space development. Only one positive feature can be found in the treaty: it prohibits the militarization of space, specifically the stationing of nuclear weapons beyond the earth. This provision has kept the world safe, and will continue to ensure that the development of space is a peaceful affair. We must maintain a commitment to this principle, even as America withdraws from the treaty.

However, the OST also prohibits nations and companies from claiming sovereignty or ownership over any extra-terrestrial matter, including asteroids, portions of the moon, and other planets. This provision has destroyed the two incentives which drive nations and people to innovate and explore: geopolitical competition and property rights.

Even a casual observer of history will know that geopolitical competition drives technological innovation. The scramble for territory in the new world revolutionized ship-building and navigation in the 16th century and the World Wars did so in aircraft and vehicular technologies. Competition for sovereignty over asteroids and portions of planets will drive innovation in aerospace technology, without the horrors of colonialism and war.

The institution of private property is an even greater propellant of innovation and economic growth than geopolitical competition. It creates incentives for individuals and industries to develop natural resources into useful products, because of their exclusive ownership and ability to profit. Again, history shows us that societies without strong property rights never have industrial development, like the Native Americans, or slowly wither away, as the Soviet Union did. The development of celestial bodies is no different; they will remain barren and uninhabited, wasted and undeveloped, if they remain un-owned.

Withdrawing from the OST in favor of establishing American sovereignty over and private ownership of parts of some celestial bodies will lead to the creation of new industries, and millions of high-paying jobs in engineering, math and physics. America’s mining and energy sectors will be greater than ever before, because a single large asteroid contains many times more precious metals than have ever been mined on Earth. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are both on the verge of creating re-usable launch systems, and are making other engineering advances by the day. These efforts will reduce launch costs substantially and lead to cheaper access to space for other industries.

For the vast majority of her history, the United States has had a geographical frontier to the West filled by wilderness, tamed by generations of adventurous hard-working Americans. But the North American frontier was closed in 1890 some 30 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, awarding land to anyone who would go West to develop it.

The Trump administration should withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty to open a new frontier for America, both to reconnect with our national past and look to our collective future. This will lead to job creation, the advancement of industry, and a new, bipartisan undertaking that everyone can support.

Paul Forrester is a Trinity sophomore.