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Legal Loophole May Pave Way For Private Ownership Of Outer Space

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Astronaut Dale A. Gardner In 1984
Astronaut Dale A. Gardner In 1984

Got an extra couple of billion dollars lying around? Need a hot investment tip? To the moon, Alice!

A shift in policy could open up the moon and other celestial bodies to ownership by private companies. Rand Simberg, a space policy consultant, laid out his proposal, called the Space Settlement Prize Act in a paper published April 2 by the libertarian think tank The Competitive Enterprise Institute, according to a report by Wired.

In order for the large-scale colonization of space to move forward, governments such as the U.S. would provide "property rights for those who seek to develop space resources and infrastructure," the draft act states. The proposal places the onus of space exploration on private enterprise rather than taxpayer contributions and, if passed, would signal a radical change in the way we think about outer space.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits sovereign nations from owning a celestial body -- such as a planet or asteroid -- and has been ratified by 100 countries, including the United States. But the treaty does not explicitly prohibit ownership of space resources by private enterprises. This is the loophole that Simberg's plan would seek to use, and he plans to shop it around on Capitol Hill, according to Popular Science.

“It would have great potential to kick the development of extraterrestrial resources -- and perhaps even the human settlement of space -- into high gear,” Simberg wrote in the summary of the proposal.

But space attorney Michael Listner maintains that sidestepping the treaty and granting extraterrestrial property rights could provoke political backlash.

"The government would take a hit. It’s sort of a nonstarter," Listner told Wired.

Simberg's plan comes at a time when the U.S. government has made dramatic cuts to its space program. The last space shuttle mission was completed in July 2011. Additionally, a future series of manned deep-space exploration missions, the Constellation program, was cancelled in June 2011. These developments have brought economic hard times on the residents of Brevard County, Fla., as reported by "60 Minutes."

While there is some private interest in space exploration -- Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise is probably the most familiar name in commercial sub-orbital flight -- there is no clear heir to the large void created by the absence of government-led programs.

In the spirit of American expansion into the old west, Simberg's proposal banks on the assumption that issuing property rights to space resources will create a kind of gold rush that would bring the national economy along for the ride. But with no one to build the wagons -- let alone drive them -- the trail ends where it starts. As yet, there's no destiny to manifest on the final frontier.