How To Create Your Own Space Civilization, According To A Space Lawyer

Let’s do a thought experiment. Tomorrow you wake up and you feel like Dr Manhattan and say “I’m tired of Earth. These People.” The only option is to relocate yourself to space. The Moon is right there. Or you could build a space station. Or you might have grander aspirations and create a settlement on Mars. I have pictured myself doing it. The enlightened and lawful space-dwelling nation of Alfredoville. If money and science were no problem, could anyone stop me?

After all, we want our mission beyond Earth to embody a Utopia so adherence to laws and eventually creating our own matters. IFLScience spoke with Professor Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Air and Space Law Program at the University of Mississippi School of Law, on the current legality of building your very own space community.

          

“The primary rule of law in space right now is the Outer Space Treaty. It’s really interesting because it’s not actually a code of law,” Professor Hanlon explained to IFLScience. “It says: ‘Hey, we’re all going to space, what’s the most important thing we want to think about? Keeping the peace in space!’ And so it is very much driven by how are we going to keep the peace.”

The Outer Space Treaty was agreed in 1967 and is ratified by 111 countries. It is a crucial piece of international legislation. It declares that everyone shall have freedom to explore the cosmos and that no state can claim territory. That should put some strong constraints on what one can do in space, but it’s not as clear-cut as this brief description might suggest.

The world and the world of space exploration have changed dramatically since 1967, especially in the last few years. There are things that, since they are not explicitly forbidden, have been considered allowed, for example, the deployment of megaconstellations that affect us all can and are being approved by single nations.

So where does this leave Alfredoville? It is very much on the horizon of possibilities. There is no obvious part of the treaty that forbids me or anyone from doing it. That doesn’t mean that I can create a dictatorial or exploitative nation in space, however. We are born on Earth and remain linked to it for our survival, even in space. Neither food nor people are found anywhere else, and even vital materials may only come from our planet.

“if you have the money, you can go and you can go to Mars and you can create Alfredoville and you can have your own rules. Absolutely,” Professor Hanlon continued. “But you’re going to be tethered to the United States, to the Earth, not necessarily to the United States, maybe to Italy.” 

I think a giant golden bust of me overlooking Utopia Planitia might truly explain the benevolent dictator I aspire to be.
Image credit: (C) IFLScience

I’m a billion dollars short of being a billionaire but if I were to have that amount of money (and the ability to feel empathy surgically removed), I could legally start a company town on, for example, Mars. I could theoretically be as exploitative as I want. I own the air and infrastructure, what are my workers gonna do? But the links to Earth should theoretically stop me from being a tyrannical dictator.

“The nation that you are currently trading with to get your food is going to say, well, we’re not going to deliver food unless you assure us that all of your employees are safe and free or something like that. So as long as you have that tether to Earth, you’re going to be bound by some national government,” Professor Hanlon explains.

As stated at the beginning of our thought experiment, I believe in the rule of law so even with money and power, I will abide by it and the links to Earth. Otherwise, my workers should feel free to hang me upside down from the public square and rename Alfredoville “The Free Space Settlement”.

          

This over-the-top thought experiment is not expected to become a reality soon. We have covered the scientific and technical complexities of settling space elsewhere but it matters to understand the legality as well. The Outer Space Treaty might be changed by agreements and behaviors that happen now, and the repercussions of those changes (or of not making changes) might affect space exploration for decades to come.   

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