Tyler - My name is Tyler Salathe and I am a student at The George Washington University. It's August 25th, 2015, and I am interviewing Richard Pournelle for the 2015 NASA Astrobiology Debates. Richard is the Senior Vice President of Business Development at NanoRacks, a private company that provides mounted facilities and space access to commercial customers at the ISS. Again, I'd like to thank you, Mr. Pournelle, for taking the time to sit down and have this discussion with me. We’re here today to discuss a topic that was prepared in partnership with NASA’s Astrobiology Program, Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law. The sentiment I believe is summed up by the quote from Carl Sagan in 1985 included in the interview packet, which states “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes." So starting our discussion broadly, as Vice President of Business Development, I’d like to ask you what your initial thoughts are, on the resolution, coming from someone working, beginning with government but then more focused on the private sector and what those consequences might become in the future.
Richard – Thanks for having me and I really appreciate the opportunity to do this. As a former debater, it’s a great opportunity to be part of this. I think, there’s only so much money that the government can devote towards space exploration. If you look at the amount of money the government spends on many endeavors, it is dwarfed by what the private sector spends in different areas. In air transportation, initially the government helped to develop the market but long term there was always going to be more capital and money to be earned and a much bigger market that could exist on a private level than ever could by just supporting exploration in government. Space is just simply a place, like any other, and so of course we want to have rules and laws in how we govern them, but we have to look at it in a way where people have an incentive to be able to want to take risks and move out and explore. If there is anything worth observing and capturing, in terms of extraterrestrial biology, we’ll get a lot further and faster in finding and notifying these things if the private sector is a part of it rather than simply having the government. The big issue becomes if you end up with onerous restrictions on what you can do as far as even if you can’t visit mars, first I just don’t see how that’s enforceable, how are you going to stop that. More importantly is that you as the question of if you want to. The example that I come back to is, I always look at this as similar to the gold rush. There’s a great book out there called “and the world rushed in” that chronicles, from one man’s perspective, and then a historian that writes around it, the history of the early years of the gold rush. One of the things the book points out in there is what would have happened if the discovery that was made at Sutter’s mill was made in another country. For example if it had been made three years early when California was still Mexico, or technically under the Spanish crown. The arguments put forth in there that the gold rush makes a good example of is, is this had been the province of kings or a controlling government that wanted to preserve whatever was there, you would have never had all the benefits of the gold rush. You ended up with an amount of growth and innovation, not only immediately in the hills around the Sierra Nevada’s but also created the city of San Francisco. Turned it from a small town to a booming metropolis on the other side of the world. You can even argue that that further led to what happened in the silver boom which they ended up making even more money. The point being that you can have all these resources and these great opportunities but if they’re locked up by some government, you’re never going to be able to access whatever wealth and more importantly what you want to preserve. You also have to look at conservation as a more traditional point of view. One of the points of conservations of nature that john more always made, that other environmentalists disagreed with him about, was that people will not want to preserve nature if they cannot experience it. This was his argument for wanting to have parks and give people access to that. There’s no incentive or anyone to want to preserve what’s on mars if they cannot access it. We certainly see that in lots of places with antiquities, especially in the Middle East right now. A lot of these places are inaccessible by the western world right now so we can make whatever rules we want. People that are getting there are pirates and thieves. To me that’s the fear here. If you ban access to mars, you end up with only the pirates and the thieves and you don’t preserve what it is you really intended to do because in the end were not looking at that the intentions of any law are. We’re looking at the consequences of it. That’s my general overview and initial thoughts in thinking about this.
Tyler – Id actually like to touch on one of the first comments you had made about the disparity in relation to space investment between how much money the government is able to invest and then how that then falls on the shoulders of the private sector and that they need an incentive to go to space. What do you see happening with private sector investment? There might be uncertainty with their investments if they begin to invest in something that won’t even be used because mars would be illegal to travel to then.
Richard – Obviously certainty is going to spur more investment to a certain extent. If certainty is what we know for the next thousand year that you won’t be allowed on there, that will not spur any kind of investment. Investors, they’re only willing to take so much risk. If you have technical risk, and financial risk, that is already usually enough for most investors. When you throw in regulatory risk that is like when they say fast cheap and good, you can pick two out of three. The way you look at regularity risk, technical risk, and financial risk, investors will take two out of three. They’ll take regulatory and even capital risk if they know that there’s an opportunity there. If they know that technically you can do it, and the laws allow you, then it’s just a matter of risking money. Or if it is a situation where technically they may not be able to do it, but if they know that if they do certain things they will make a lot of money. Biotechnology and drug discovery start with an investment of 5-10 million dollars, but by the time is goes to be an actual drugs there’s hundreds in there. They know their willing to take the financial and technical risk that it might not work out because there is a big market. If we know that there is no big upside on resources or anything else like that, then the technical risk and financial risk is going to hurt anyone. There is one point to be made about the technical risk especially with going to mars. If you ask even Elon Musk, he would say we don’t have the technology today to go to mars. There is a book that came out 10 years ago that made this argument quite well. All of the risks that you have to do to keep people alive on mars, we don’t know how to solve all of them. That doesn’t mean they won’t be solves. But with the technology that we have today, even if we had all the money in the world, we’re probably taking a risk that most people wouldn’t be willing to make. To get back to the original point, you have to have, regulatory risk can only be tolerated if there’s a sure thing in terms of the financial upside and they think they have a path on the technical risk. There are business that are built on regulatory risk because there are lots of things that are easy. And space is nowhere near that as a business proposition. Anything beyond low earth orbit, you have tremendous technical risk. There is tremendous financial risk. The more regulatory certainty you can have, that whatever investment you make can be recouped, then that becomes something that people can begin to build a business case for.
Tyler – So it seems like in terms of space development the regulatory risk is even more important just because the financial and technological risks are already granted.
Richard – yes so I worked on getting the commercial space launch amendment act passed. So when we originally started working on that bill around 2002 and 2003, there was uncertainty as to whether or not launch vehicles that have wings on them would be regulated as an airplane or a rocket. If they were regulated as a rocket, then you can move with that. If it’s regulated as an airplane, it’s much much harder and no one really wanted that. No one wanted to go through the airplane regulatory process so the fact that no one knew where it stood impeded the industry. One of the things the bill fixed was to let you know which regulatory regime you were in so if the law says something bout the thrusts exceeding the lift on the vehicle, that provides a pretty firm line from an engineering standpoint for what is a lunch vehicle and what is an airplane. Originally when the law was written in the 80s, launch vehicles were just rockets, converted ICMBs, they didn’t have rockets. So all of a sudden you have people creating rockets with wings and in fact no one wanted to call them airplanes because the regulatory regime for certified airplanes was too onerous. Airplanes have a 100 year history, regulations are based on that, so to apply those rules to rockets was not going to be good for the industry. It was able to create a dividing line. Those kinds of dividing lines of which side of the rules am I going to be on, it certainly helps with the investment climate. You will never be able to end all uncertainty. Obviously laws can be changed down the road. If at least you know what the regulatory basis is of this, it could get you a better place to start from. More importantly, whenever you pass a federal law, most of the time it’s to change a previous law. If you look at the commercial space launch amendment, it amendment the commercial space launch. By the time you look at most laws, they’re just red lines of a previous law. In this case there is probably lots of law you could argue that could or could not apply to the current regime of property rights in space. For example I know some people are trying to work with the FAA to try and come up with a by-default property right through FAA licenses. Where the license gives them a right to a patch of lunar territory. Even being able to clarify what’s under existing law and where you fall under existing law and what path you’re going to take, can be of help in regulatory certainty.
Tyler –touching on the confusion with regulatory issues a company might confront, I’ve been reading articles that say just because we haven’t discovered any life worth preserving or anything that would fall under the preservation ethic, business plans would just continue unaffected in the absence of these discoveries. My question would be about the announcement of this new international law. How would that announcement of a new legislation, how would that affect private business. Is that something that companies would take into account, they wouldn’t just brush it off because there hasn’t been any life found?
Richard – I would certainly chip away against the premise that we don’t know what kind of life exists on Mars. For example, based on what we know so far about Mars, we know what kind of life may exist on there. It’s going to be single cell kind of – we can put a box around what kind of life is going to be on mars. Even though we haven’t seen it yet, you can do that in a lot of these cases. By looking at a planet and things you could know, what kind of potential life is there, and then be able to work backwards to if we are trying to preserve something, you can’t just say we don’t know. The reality is you can find out. Assuming then that before you go and disturb some new world you already know something about it. You can begin to prepare and make some sort of reasonable compromise, just like we do on earth, of preserving it. The way we preserve wildlife in this country, I would not recommend for any new endeavor. A lot of the way a lot of development is done now is that they do tradeoffs. If I wanted to extend the run ways at the San Francisco airport, so in turn they were going to buy a bunch of marshland. Everywhere you turned, environmentally sensitive issues are offset by building a park or buying a preserve somewhere else. So you end up with a lot of little patches everywhere without thinking about cohesive ecosystems. Instead of having one big park that can sustain certain kinds of larger animals, you have a whole bunch of disconnected parks. We can’t call the rules that wave put in this country a huge success on either side. Especially if you’re wanting to preserve what native life was there. If we know something ahead of time about these worlds then I think you can begin to specify, if you are going to have regulations, it would be remised to just make them blanket for every world and make them all the same. We know there’s a lot less chance of life on the moon by the fact of simple observation. The moon might be a lot different than Mars. Now obviously the flip side to that is that at some point we may end up discovering a form of life that we are incapable of understanding. That also begs the questions of how we are capable of making rules to protect something we don’t understand. It’s always safe to not do anything. That’s always the safest thing on anything. The space business is not based on that .It’s based on calculated risks, and going forward accepting those risks. Even airplanes you take every day today. If we flew and operated airports and airplanes exactly by the book, half the flights every day would be canceled. But we assume the pilots are competent and so you end up taking risks. It’s very much the same thing in space and will probably continue to be for the near future. It’s a very harsh environment.
Tyler – I’d to touch briefly on a comment you had made a little bit ago concerning the acceptance of international law by other countries. For example, if it’s the United States pushing this topic and resolution, what incentive would china have to not stake land on Mars if they were to get there. Some people have written that globalization of the commercialization of space has led to a variety of cultural differences guiding international business ethics. If we then adopt a single ethic, how do you think other countries would react to that and is it enforceable?
Richard – You have a community of nations that cooperates on big things. I don’t know too much about what governs space law and where it is but the reality is that there is agreement on space. Most nations follow that. If you look at, for example, antiquities and preserving those in the Middle East. There it isn’t as much countries but the phrase by Thomas Freidman, the Lexus and the Olive Tree, this example of a super-powered individual. Whether it is someone like Bin Laden or Donald Trump, someone with a lot of money that can do what they want, oftentimes can have the same amount of power as many nations. Those will be the harder ones to preserve because how do you deter someone that can go and do what they want. How do you deter Somali pirates and the space equivalent of that? Nations will have their agreements and they will cheat on them, but there is a framework for coming up with those rules and hopefully this debate among many others will be a process for coming up with rules. The reality is that you’re going to have people that don’t follow those rules. Part of the reason why Somali pirates are able to survive out in the Horn of Africa is because nobody else wants to be there and no one else is there. And there is no one that can come and help you. The reality is that Somali pirates don’t operate in the middle of the Mediterranean. Help is close by. There are lots of people there. There is development. In the Horn of Africa there isn’t any. If you make Mars just as populated as the Horn of Africa where no one wants to go and no one is allowed to go, then the only people that will rescue you from the Somali pirates will be the other Somali pirates. That’s why you want to have orderly law abiding people there so that it is easier to enforce whatever reasonable rules that you’ve come up with.
Tyler - Interesting. But you see it as if a group of countries are held away from Mars and legally bound, someone will still get there eventually whether or not it’s a country that follows the international regime or not.
Richard – Yeah. There are enough – I think it goes to me saying when you have the question of why Mars, there’s a lot of appeal there because it’s probably the closest to being able to sustain a long-term civilization. If we are going to pick a place, as far as where to start out, you have the moon, which has the advantage of being closer. But it has no atmosphere, it may have water in the craters, but you would have to drill down to preserve. One of the big issues for how do you keep people outside the Van Allen belt. That’s protecting people from radiation. We don’t know how to do it. There’s lots of ideas that range from shielding them with lead and water to using electromagnetic type of shielding to even changing of human genetics to make people radiation tolerant. Even in low earth orbit you get pretty high doses of radiation and it can have a pretty bad effect on people. The second you get out of the Van Allen belt, you need a place to find shelter. On the moon you can do that by digging down. On Mars you have somewhat of an atmosphere. You have close to Earth’s gravity to it. If you’re going to find a place to live in space, if you’re going to look around the neighborhood, Earth is number one, Mars would be number two if getting there isn’t as much of a problem. To me, there is a certain inevitability. If you believe that it is inevitable that we will become a space faring civilization - that people will live in space. If it is, it is certain probable that Mars will be one of those populated places. If you believe that we will forever be on the Earth, we can debate that. But if you believe humans are going to live in space, they are going to live on Mars. And simply because it is one of the easiest places to do it.
Tyler – I know your job isn’t primarily focused on theoretical thinking but you touched on the idea of a long-term civilization on Mars. Getting there so we can have some form of sustainable resources that we haven’t achieved on Earth yet or that we are dwindling down. What do you think on that topic? Do you think it’s important to have that planet outside of Earth? Do you think that will happen whether or not we continue developing to explore other planets.
Richard – I think certainly the probability has increased tremendously from the success of SpaceX. And the fact that you see somebody with a lot of resources and is committed to doing this regardless of whether the government does it. US government has said it’s a goal, I’m sure foreign governments have said it. There’s probably other billionaires out there that would pick up from where Elon left off. The reality is that there is a lot of momentum to there. Other people have made the arguments better for why humanity should be there and why we should be a multi-planet species. Why we need to have frontiers and why we need to explore. These are things that other people have argued quite well. Those arguments do stand. My favorite, Larry Niven, wrote an introduction to one of my dad’s books called Stepfather. He wants people to go to space, not because he wants to go to space but because he wants to see the Earth turn back into a nice park with trees. So he can walk around Earth and experience Earth in a much nicer way as people have moved to space. He along with Elon Musk have made lots of arguments for the ‘Why’ we should go. The inevitability or at least the chances of it happening are dramatic and increased by the fact that now you don’t have to just rely on the government. Here’s a multi-billion dollar business that has dedicated something to this premise. There’s still a lot of work to be done on how you get there but the probability of it in my mind is quite high and has gotten higher over the past ten years.
Tyler – Touching back briefly, I had read a Nanoracks article of a stash and deploy 3-D printing. Something interesting that I read was that it would eventually be working to have the ability to create spaceships in space as a final idea of its purpose. I then got to thinking, it seems like there is a lot of research out right now that says if we develop a preservation Ethic, that doesn’t affect smaller scale tech development in space. Just spaceship research getting to mars. It seems like a lot of smaller-scale tech development in space is geared towards those future discoveries. Dual-use being able to create something that would help us discover other planets. Do you think those smaller technologies would be effected by a resolution like this?
Richard – You can look at the current crop of people who are putting in either time or money or both in development what would be right now considered smaller projects. But many of the people investing are starting with the premise that this could lead to something else. If you look at most the people who invested in Google LunarEx teams or programs, they are looking at it from a perspective of that’s not the end point. Bob Bigelow has said that his investment is clearly for something bigger. Elon Musk has said that the whole purpose of his multi-billion dollar enterprise is for this purpose. Even small cubesats. We launch cubesats for people who are looking to mine asteroids. These start with small cubesats. If there was more uncertainty or bad news on the front of their ability to harvest whatever it is that they’re going after, most of the business plans are under the premise of start small, build a business, but eventually move towards a larger goal. Most of those goals involve being a spacefaring civilization. Having people in space. These things, whether they be earth observation satellites, radios, small tests, most of them are for the purpose of advancing us towards that. The harder you make it, it would have an effect downstream in my mind.
Tyler – And just as an overall comment on that, what do you foresee happening then to space investment. I know it’s a huge industry and I’m not sure what portion of the US economy goes into space exploration, but what consequences do you see down the line, if it not only starts small but blocks larger investments. What does that look like?
Richard – I view, and I’m probably not the only one but one of the few, I view a lot of this whole concept of being a spacefaring nation, as a dialectic, an inevitability like the socialists would assume its inevitable. Whatever we do is simply postponing or accelerating the inevitable. Barring some unfortunate consequence on Earth of some sort of horrible tragedy, its inevitable that we will be a spacefaring civilization. The consequence of delaying the benefits of that, of having the potential for a cleaner Earth by moving – pulling industries off. Having the ability to access unlimited energy, the ability to access new resources. The ability to be able to discover new life. Those things are going to be impeded by the fact that you’re holding back the private sector. With a misguided attempt to preserve life, you end up harming life on these other planets because youre simply going to be holding back the ability to go and discover these things. Our ability then to be able to preserve or manage or have any kind of stewardship towards any resources that we find in these places is going to be hindered by the fact that people won’t want to invest in this and turn inward to try and make the most out of what they have here. When in fact they could end up doing twice as much by having access to a lot more. Our motto at our business is that if you’re thinking globally you’re thinking too small.
Tyler – Well fantastic. Are there any other comments that you would like to get in before closing out the interview?
Richard – I would not rule out reasonable restrictions on how you approach or prepare. That’s part of life now. A good example to look at is how much good is really done by current environmental assessments that are done. If you’re going to assume that we are trying to come up with reasonable regulations, you won’t just take the extreme on either side. Of letting anyone do what they want or let’s restrict Mars and no one can go there. Assuming you’re somewhere in the middle on that, then you really have to take a look at what has worked in terms of these kinds of rules and things like that. The example I always come back to is the gold rush. You can say what you want about the horrors of free market capitalism and the destruction of the environment, but last I checked, California is still better off environmentally than many other places. They unlocked a lot of wealth out of there and dug it out of the ground and threw a lot of people into that place. It’s not some environmental hellhole. It is also not devoid of all industry as people on the other side would look at it today. The reality is that you have to look at what has worked and what hasn’t in previous times. In the case of the Gold Rush, there you have something where you had American-style capitalism and you didn’t up with a complete collapse of civilization and an environment where no one wanted to live in. You ended up with one of the most desirable places in the world. I would hope that whatever reasonable regulation that you come up with for being able to do business on Mars you would end up with the same thing.
Tyler – So instead of an overriding ethical obligation, it would be something like a reasonable ethical obligation or a case-by case?
Richard – Yeah, a reasonably managed. We can talk all we want about whatever ethical obligations but in the end, if you write law you compromise any ethical obligations. We could always lower speeding limit laws. If we have an ethical obligation to preserve life over all else, then the speed limit would be 25 everywhere. But it isn’t. I would argue against the premise that there is some sort of overriding ethical obligation that eliminates the ability to come up with reasonable compromises or at least reasonable regulations.