Salon Daily Clicks: Newsreal

And where lawyers go, venture capitalists and investment bankers are sure to follow.

By Geoff Shandler

Published August 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it may not be well-known, but the planet Mars is actually the property of Adam Ismail, Abdullah al-Umari and Mustafa Khalil. The three, from the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen, claim to have inherited the planet from their ancestors some 3,000 years ago. "Sojourner and Pathfinder," they recently charged in the Arabic weekly Al-Thawri, "which are owned by the United States government, landed on Mars and began exploring it without informing us or seeking our approval." They've filed suit in San'a, Yemen's largest city, demanding an immediate halt to all NASA activity on Mars until the court decides the case.

Their claim, of course, is a bit out there, but the issue they raise should not be laughed off.

Earlier this summer some of the world's top space scientists gathered at Princeton University for the Space Studies Institute's biannual conference. Since 1974, the Institute, which was founded by physicist Gerard O'Neill and is now headed by Freeman Dyson, has examined man's expansion into space. Past SSI conferences have included discussions of orbiting space colonies, lunar bases and vast arrays of solar energy panels in orbit around Earth. This year, man's ownership of space was the order of the day, and, as would be expected, a number of lawyers were on hand.

For example, James Dunstan, a communications lawyer at Haley Bader and Potts, an Arlington, Va., firm, led a conference session called "International, Legal and Economic Considerations." Dunstan, who half-jokingly described SSI as "a support group for lawyers," pointed out an appetizing legal conundrum: Nobody's clarified a private property code for space. The logic was simple: Why would I want to spend the money to build a mine on a planet if someone else could land their spaceship there and claim a share of my ore? Why invent a better way to harness solar energy if I had to share the profits? For those who believe in the universality of market solutions, shouldn't the marketplace be universal?

If it seems rather early in the game to worry about interplanetary mining operations when we still have trouble getting the Hubble Telescope to focus, tell that to the American Bar Association. An ABA committee is already looking into the legal ramifications of private and intellectual property in space, and its head, New York lawyer Lawrence Roberts, presented a paper at the conference on regulating solar system resources. We must be especially careful, he warned, when it comes to a planet that might contain life, or the potential for life. But for dead moons and asteroids, Roberts said, our top priority should be the development of private property. Apparently, science was not of major importance.

In a major confession, however, the lawyers admitted they couldn't conquer the void alone. Investment bankers and venture capitalists were also needed, a suggestion greeted with widespread approval from the many engineers and businessmen in the crowd. One presenter even proposed setting up a venture capital fund, a sort of space development bank that could be run out of the Department of Commerce. Others argued that the private sector should be left alone to supply the necessary funding. "After all," said an engineer as he left a conference lunch, "we let the market decide things down here. Why not everywhere?"

Some at the conference remembered that space exploration used to mean more than making a buck. Steven Wolfe, who was billed as a "consultant," proposed a march from Harlem to NASA headquarters in Washington to show that space should be available for everyone to explore. Wolfe seemed frustrated with the world in general, and one got the sense that his largest reason for supporting space colonization was simply to get the hell out of here. Whatever the origins of his frustration, his plea fell on relatively deaf ears. The audience didn't want a march from Harlem; they wanted a march to Wall Street. Educate people? As Dunstan said, "In our society, we value knowledge, but we don't believe in just transferring it. We believe in selling it."

Maybe such sentiments should not have been surprising in these free-market times, particularly when NASA is struggling valiantly to maintain a workable budget (the White House and Senate have recommended it be slashed by $209 million, the House by a slightly less drastic $148 million). The SSI has always held a finger up to the political wind, and if NASA had more money to spend, perhaps attendees would have felt more charitable to the agency (the only truly spontaneous applause at the four-day conference came when a NASA-funded graduate student described the agency as an energy-leeching bureaucracy).

To be fair, NASA is trying to get with the program. Jet Propulsion Lab documents describe the Pathfinder mission to Mars as "our current business," which produces a "product" of "information about Mars" and whose customers include not just "scientists" but "everyone." But many of those looking skyward weren't buying. "There's only one thing that's going to take us into space," said a scientist. "That's the potential to make some real money." One wonders whether whatever force created the very cosmos these men sought to exploit had ever thought in such terms; but then, as a conference veteran remarked, "God had a pretty decent budget to play with."

Yes, God did have a bigger budget, but government spending on space provided more spin-off products like Tang and Teflon. It has inspired Americans to go into science, and even -- if only for intermittent moments -- bridged gaps of class, race and gender. It has even made us think of our world in new ways. "In the long run," the late Carl Sagan wrote, "the greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavor has been able, something about our cosmic context, about where, when and who we are."

That we now desire to turn the heavens into terms sheets and stock options is pretty depressing for those of us who were hoping to meet Obi-Wan Kenobi out there, not Gordon Gekko. Plaintiffs Ismail, al-Umari and Khalil may be less an amusing aberration and more an ominous sign of things to come. The way the lawyers, businessmen and bankers see it, if there are indeed hundreds of billions of worlds out there, then they all could use some deal-making acumen. And if we soil the cosmos in the process, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Geoff Shandler

Geoff Shandler is a book editor and writer who lives in New York.

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