NASA has been tasked with landing humans on Mars by the 2030s. The nonprofit Mars One foundation claims it’s preparing to blast off hardware for human habitation of the Red Planet by 2024. And Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has made it his mission to turn Mars into humanity’s second home to save our species from possible extinction.
No political system exists to manage these new arrivals—and if humans indeed colonize Mars in the 21st century, we’re going to need one soon. But it’s hard to find good precedents for governing in a place where air may need to be a basic right of citizenry and an entire planet is up for grabs.
Musk’s vision for governance on Mars is steeped in the libertarian-leaning ideals of Silicon Valley. At a recent Recode event, he described a system of “direct democracy,” rather than a reliance on elected officials to represent the masses. Musk would let people vote directly on most (if not all) issues before the government. Laws would be subject to expiration dates and popular recall by 40% of the population, ensuring it’s “easier to remove a law than to create one.” Musk believes the colonization of another planet will give humanity an opportunity to reboot its mode of governance, much as the US Constitution did in 1788, making a sharp break with outdated institutions and ideas born in an earlier era.
Humans have learned a lot in the intervening centuries about how to manage competing polities. And researchers publishing in the journal Space Policy (paywall) on May 30 say we should use them. Three treaties in particular—agreements governing the high seas, Antarctica, and outer space— point the way to “successful sharing of international resources,” say the authors.
The researchers, from the nonprofit Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, came to rather different conclusions than Musk about how to encourage harmony between rival states, sustain Martian exploration, and avoid follies ranging from physical violence to rampant environmental degradation.
Their full proposal (pdf) borrows from the Antarctic Treaty System and the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, as well as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (pdf) that decrees “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.” It hands local power to Martian inhabitants, coordinated by a weak central authority called the Mars Secretariat. No country can make a sovereign claim, but property rights to extract minerals and resources are permitted. Colonizing parties can occupy limited plots of Martian land, and claim exclusive economic rights within a 100 kilometer radius, but not prevent others from inhabiting or traversing the territory. Colonists remain under the legal jurisdiction of their host nation. Conflicts are resolved either by temporary Martian tribunals of representatives from other Mars colonies or diplomacy back on Earth.
The researchers say they drew two lessons from history in thinking through principles for a future Martian government. The first is that space-faring nations will probably resist, if not reject, attempts by a strong central authority to impinge on national sovereignty. The second is that any proposal to redistribute to all nations any riches from Mars will probably fail. The ill-fated Moon Agreement of 1979 seized on both ideas and never won support from a single space-faring country (although 11 nations that have never been to space signed on). The Antarctic and ocean treaties were explicitly crafted to avoid these kinds of clauses.
To address the Outer Space Treaty’s decree that space should benefit all humanity, the authors offer several possibilities: the creation of “planetary parks” preserving land for scientific and cultural purposes; a “Mars tax,” from the use of Mars resources, distributed to all countries; or a reinterpretation of the clause, to designate the creation of space colonies as an intrinsic benefit to the species. That, the authors say, should balance the need for property rights and private investment with shared benefits as humans settle our solar system.
The urgency is real. Martian colonists may be years away, but the legal structure for the private sector to invest in space exploration (and mine asteriods) must be in place to catalyze the investments that will get us there. With that in mind, Congress already passed a commercial space bill, the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, to enable these businesses. It was signed into law last November. It recognizes property claims of US citizens who mine celestial bodies, prevents others from interfering with their activities, and offers liability protection for highly risky spaceflights.
Space lawyer James Dunstan said the bill was designed to reassure entrepreneurs that the “US will recognize claims of property rights of US citizens who go out and mine asteroids…if you expend the resources and go do it, and bring that stuff back, we will agree—recognize it—as your property.” But the scope of the law is narrow. It was criticized by groups like TechFreedom, a libertarian think tank on technology policy, for lacking a way to resolve conflicts and holding the potential to ignite a new space race for territory grabs.
The authors of the Mars governance proposal say that plans by both SpaceX and Mars One may violate the Outer Space Treaty. If so, this gives policy makers about a decade to get things right. Musk said last week that Space X’s plan is to launch Mars missions beginning in 2018 and then every two years or so from there on out. A manned flight would follow during the 2020s. (And NASA is only a decade behind.)
By 2040, Musk expects to see a thriving Martian city and, three decades later, a red planet inhabited by at least 1 million people. He wants to join them and retire on the planet before he turns 100.
By that time, it may not matter what those of us on Earth think. The principle of a society’s right to self-determination, articulated by US president Woodrow Wilson in 1918 in calling for the League of Nations, posited that people are now ”dominated and governed only by their own consent.” The right for people to break away from their mother country was affirmed, and entered the annals of international law; more than 80 former colonies have gained independence and joined the United Nations since 1945, as Michael Byers, a political science researcher at the University of British Columbia, noted in a piece for the Washington Post.
In that spirit, a Mars colony should be entitled to independence, and the government of its choosing, if the colonists demand it through a popular vote. ”Human rights are universal,” writes Byers. “They apply to every human being, on this planet and elsewhere.”