Earth Laws and The Final Frontier: The Laws Governing Space Leave Much to be Discovered

October 4, 2016

barickman-imageBefore the SpaceX Mars event at the International Aeronautical Congress in Mexico, many people were skeptical of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company reaching Mars anytime soon. Forty-seven years have passed since Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and coined the phase “That is one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Since that exhilarating event, some say NASA has been MIA. This explains why people have become disillusioned and even skeptical of future space travel. Until now.

On September 27, 2016, Elon Musk re-sparked humanities interest in space travel. Musk announced that SpaceX plans to take humans to Mars by 2025.

However, before we can set up colonies on Mars, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of questions that need to be answered. Questions including how to physically get to Mars, whether humans will survive the trip through space and be able to sustain themselves on Mars, and whether this will be a solo endeavor of a private space company, like SpaceX, or whether NASA will get on board, as well. Even if humans do not make it to Mars by 2025, there are still other issues that can be discussed now in preparation for the day humans reach Mars. A big question is what laws will apply to Mars colonists.
The main governing body controlling operations in space is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). According to UNOOSA, “Space law can be described as the body of law governing space-related activities.” Further, “‘space law’ is most often associated with the rules, principles and standards of international law appearing in the five international treaties and five sets of principles governing outer space which have been developed under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Of the five treaties, the Outer Space Treaty is credited as “provid[ing] the basic framework on international space law . . . .” Article I of the Outer Space Treaty states, “The exploration and use of outer space including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” Article II clarifies the last clause of Article I, by stating, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. Most people interpret Article I and II as implying that the Moon and Mars belong to everyone. Therefore, when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and planted the United States flag on its surface, “the gesture was more ceremonial than a claim of sovereignty.”
However, in addition to abiding by the UNOOSA treaties, space travelers also have to abide by the laws of the country where their company or agency is located. For example, since SpaceX is an American company, they have to abide by American law and the UNOOSA treaties.
The Outer Space Treaty was enacted on October 10, 1967, and since then much has changed. With the possibility of large-scale operations in space, it is now becoming necessary to talk about amending or adding to the existing laws governing how we operate amongst the stars. Further clarification is necessary in order to provide space travelers with more guidance on what they can and cannot do.
However, laws mean nothing with out a true form of governance. If a colony were to start growing like Elon Musk predicts and dreams, it would need to be able to govern itself. The gap between Mars and Earth would be too far, and the needs on Mars would be too different, for Earth governments to effectively work on Mars. In an interview, Musk stated in his opinion a form of direct democracy would be the best type of governing system on Mars. However, direct democracy may present some dangers. In such a hostile environment, action needs to be taken quickly. A system with an elected central leadership may work better, because the government would be able to respond to crises immediately.
Regardless of what laws are amended or added, and what form of government is chosen, we are still a very long way away from colonizing Mars. Nonetheless, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said to Larry King, “we need people thinking that way. He [Elon Musk] wants to send a mission to Mars. We need those people in society. Otherwise the rest of us think that every other day should be like the previous one.”