By William Gray

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, once said “[t]he future of humanity is going to bifurcate in two directions: Either it’s going to become multiplanetary, or it’s going to remain confined to one planet and eventually there’s going to be an extinction event.”  If Musk is correct, then we are at a pivotal crossroads in human history.  But is what Musk is suggesting even feasible? And if it is, what laws govern a colony on another celestial body?

Mars is the most likely target for multiplanetary expansion.  For years, scientists have sent drones and “rovers” to the surface of the “Red Planet” to collect soil samples and conduct other experiments.  The results rendered by these experiments have lead scientists to believe that Mars once had bodies of liquid water.  This gives scientists hope that one day vegetation may be able to take root on the surface of Mars and potentially sustain a human colony.  

In 2016, Elon Musk declared his intention of putting humanity on Mars and establishing the very first extraterrestrial human colony.  His company, SpaceX, is a highly successful rocket company that has launched several successful crafts into orbit.  The recent success of SpaceX has allowed them to obtain a contract to carry supplies to and from the International Space Station. This alone has made SpaceX a household name. However, Musk was not satisfied with these successes.  He has his eyes set on a much greater prize.  By constantly tweaking and enhancing the rocket’s technology, Musk is inching himself closer and closer to achieving his ultimate goal of colonizing the Martian planet.  

The concept of multiplanetary colonization is fascinating and exciting to talk about, but few people actually understand the intricacies of the minute details surrounding potential space colonization.  Space Law is one of these little known topics and must be addressed to ensure successful progression of the project.  To gain a basic understanding of applicable law, one must begin with the Outer Space Treaty.  The Outer Space Treaty was signed into law in 1967, and now contains the signatures of 105 sovereign nations.  This treaty covers aspects of Space Law including: property rights, launching of satellites, nuclear weapons, environmental issues, etc. . .

The Outer Space Treaty explicitly states that no one may own a celestial body.  This is perhaps the greatest challenge in establishing a colony.  If one cannot own property on a celestial body, then how could a colony possibly be established?  Another issue SpaceX faces is that in order to launch a rocket, they must receive government permission. But from who?  As it currently stands, in order to receive permission to launch, you must also receive a license from the governing agency in charge of regulating the activity you wish to conduct.  For instance, in the United States, if one wishes to launch a telecommunications satellite into orbit, they must first receive a license to do so from the FCC.  This creates a somewhat unnecessary and restrictive barrier to what Musk wishes to accomplish as a private entity.

Although the Outer Space Treaty is a great place to start in creating a cohesive set of laws to govern a Martian colony, it still fails to touch on some crucial topics.  However, maritime law may be able to fill in the gaps.  Similar to how the Outer Space Treaty prohibits the ownership of a celestial body, maritime law prohibits states from claiming title to international waters. So will we treat the “Red Planet” as we do international waters?  It’s not the worst place to build a body of law off of.  For example, when addressing the applicable laws to sailors on a ship, under maritime law, each ship must abide by the laws of the flag they fly.  In other words, if a ship sails under an American flag, then they must abide by United States law. This also applies to the ship’s crew members whether they are on or off the ship.  In a similar way, if an American rocket was launched with the intention of establishing a colony, the rocket and its passengers would likely be bound by United States law.  

In addition to the overall governing body of law, it is important that a colony establish a system of governance on the planet to ensure the law is followed.  Recently, Elon Musk has voiced his opinion on this matter.  He stated that he believes a pure democracy is the ideal form of government for a colony on mars.  Instead of using the American version of a representative democracy, he explains that a pure democracy leaves little room for corruption and allows all of the people’s voices to be heard.  As the colony is just starting out, this “pure democracy” model may be ideal.  Colonists are sure to face tough decisions in establishing an efficient colony and it is important that the voice of all of the people be heard when deciding a resolution.

Although not for another ten to twenty years, it is very likely that there soon will be a human settlement on the “Red Planet.”  Therefore, the burden is on us to establish a potential form of governance to lay the groundwork for history’s first extraterrestrial civilization.  The future existence of our species might even depend upon it.


Student Bio: William Gray is currently a 2L at Suffolk University Law School and a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law.  He holds a B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Criminal Justice from Quinnipiac University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.

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