The Battle for Interstellar Frontiers, and Why it May Not Matter

If you have a debit card and around $20 you can purchase an extraterrestrial acre of land. Online. Deeds are available for plots on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Lo, and Titan. If you want something a little closer, lunar plots are also available.

While this may seem unfathomable, it is true. Sort of.

There are many facets to this story, and I have some thoughts about how interstellar real estate may unfold. Let’s begin with the government perspective on who owns the rights to outer space.

Outer Space Treaty

First session of the Legal Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, United Nations HQ, May 26th, 1959

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 establishes a framework for international space law. It was signed by 91 countries (with subsequent deposits of ratification and accession by 37 more), and outlines the following principles:

  • 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.
  • Outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States.
  • Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner.
  • The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.
  • Astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind.
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities.
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects.
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies

So there it is. Through collaboration and a mutual interest in the preservation of humankind, we can breach the confines of our diplomatic segregation as we work towards galactic settlements.


Assuming Government Regulation

While the Outer Space Treaty seems legitimate, it assumes that the governments of the world (most specifically those who have signed it) have jurisdiction over extraterrestrial bodies. That we, as a human race, have extended our international boundaries—along with their governments and laws—to the entire universe.

So how does that work, exactly?

Outpost Alpha, by Mars One: a simulation for Martian life.

Consider the scenario that a group of people from a handful of countries leaves Earth and settles on Mars (ahem). Not people working on government-funded projects, mind you, but a privately-funded venture. Let’s say their settlement is thriving, so others join them. And others. And so forth.

Now we have a nice little satellite society of extraterrestrial human beings. Who says they’re bound to the laws of Earthly governments? How might this be enforced? And if it could be enforced, which countries take precedence when the settlement comprises “citizens” from more than one country?

When do Earthly opinions simply become irrelevant in the conversation?

Earth currently houses 196 countries (if you count Taiwan). 128 of those have signed the Outer Space Treaty. That means 68 countries don’t give a shit. Or, they don’t have the money/power to sit at the table. Either way, there are 68 countries who could at some point set up shop on another planet, consequently nullifying the Treaty altogether.

The Model of Earthly Statehood

History. It tells us a bloody story about conquest and statehood. We can boil down the formation of countries into a few buckets:

  1. I got here first, so this is mine.
  2. You got here first, but I want it. I am bigger and stronger so it is mine.
  3. No one is here because it’s inhabitable or scary, so by terra nullius I am going to claim it as mine.

The Outer Space Treaty states that if humans are able to occupy an extraterrestrial body, it belongs to the entire human race. Unless I am one of the 68 “other” countries. Then it’s mine. Until one of the 128 Treaty singers shows up, then it’s likely theirs. Unless it’s a plot of land on Mercy, where daytime temperatures are 800° and nighttime temperatures are -280°. Then it’s still mine because no one wants it.

You see where I’m going here? Extraterrestrial kingdoms look a lot like terrestrial kingdoms.

But what if you don’t want to claim rights to land, and only want to…oh…mine an astroid for precious minerals? Well, the United States government has you covered.


SPACE Act of 2015

Apollo 12 member Charles Conrad Jr. at the Ocean of Storms site of our Moon.

On November 25th, 2015, President Obama signed into legislation the SPACE Act of 2015. This affords U.S. companies the right to hunt for extraterrestrial materials on asteroids and bring them back to Earth, free from sovereign regulation. Basically, space mining. The bill notes:

A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.

It is important to note that the Senate noticed a gap in the version the House passed, whereby the term “space resource” wasn’t clearly defined. The early version would have afforded people the right of conquest of alien life. Whoops! Fortunately, the final bill defines the resources as an “abiotic resource in situ in outer space.” Phew.

But what happens when another country targets an astroid where a United States company arrives first? Are they going to lay claim to a portion of the bounty, pointing to the Outer Space Treaty that noting that the exploration of space is “…for the benefit and in the interests of all countries…”? Is space mining exploration, or a smash-and-grab?

In Conclusion

So what does all of this mean—if anything at all? Well:

  1. You can get there first, and claim it is yours.
  2. You can get there second, and still claim it is yours because you are bigger and stronger.
  3. You can get there in any order, and claim it is yours because no one else is as crazy as you and your desire to own one of the many uninhabitable plots of land in outer space.

Or…we can rethink how we function as a species, learn from history, and begin to live as a species rather than citizens. Outer space is an opportunity for us to move beyond diplomatic segregation and technological/intellectual dominance, into a new era of being human. I am quite eager to watch the process unfold.