Martian 1776 has arrived, according to SpaceX. In a set of recently released documents, the company announced it has no intention of following laws from any government on Earth once it reaches Mars.
“For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities,” the document reads, which was included in the Terms of Service of its ambitious Starlink project. “Accordingly, disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”
If this all sounds a little preemptive, that’s because it is. This particular document was almost certainly put out to gain attention for the company’s (and Musk’s) dream of creating a “The Expanse”-style self-sustaining Mars. And SpaceX is yet to deliver a single spacecraft to the Red Planet, forget a functioning colony.
That being said: Preemptive as Musk’s Martian Declaration might be, the idea opens a Pandora’s Box of unanswered questions about the ownership of the solar system. The topics range from the potential for interplanetary empires, the question of Martian patriots, and the risk of communists in space — and all of them merit a good look. Here are just five of them.
1. SpaceX Has a Head Start on Every Single Government
NASA will almost certainly be the first government space agency to reach Mars. It will arrive around 15 years after SpaceX does.
Elon’s company has its Mars rocket, the Starship, prepared to be operating in 2021, launching cargo missions to Mars by 2024, and sending a manned mission in 2026. Even if the company is knocked a catastrophic 10 years behind schedule, it’ll still beat all other national space agencies to Mars handily, according to the government’s own estimates, which place a likely landing sometime in the 2040s.
The question, then, becomes what private industry will do with this head start.
While any colony would be reliant on supplies and support from back on Earth for a long time, whoever arrives first would get to create their own “facts on the ground.” Governments hoping to do work on the planet will be placed in a position of dependence. Every aspect of their projects would be shaped by the company’s choices, from transportation to colony rules. And if the company is promoting ideas of home rule to its workers (who will likely make up most of the colony’s population) and the world, it could push the colony in a definitively pro-independence direction, at least in the long term.
2. According to International Law, Martian Independence Is Perfectly Legal
If Elon Musk wanted to take his rockets to Mars, establish a city, and declare it an independent nation, it would be completely legal. Right now, space exploration is governed by a loose handful of international agreements setting up basic rules on how countries should act in space. And these basic rules say nothing about how land and resources on the other planets can be used. They also completely fail to cover what private companies can and cannot do outside the Blue Dot.
Space law has barely been updated in the last 40 years, while everything in the space industry has changed. It took global fixation and ten years of negotiations for the United Nations to agree on a bare outline of an agreement regarding the moon in the 1970s; there’s every reason to think that Mars is still going to be the Wild West when Musk arrives.
3. In Defense of Interplanetary Empires
There are many reasons, however, to think that the United States is not going to let its Martian investments ride solo.
While SpaceX is a private company through and through, its current business model is dependent on government contracts and cash. Worthwhile as this investment may have been, this support sure isn’t going to be forgotten once Mars is reached. And there’s no reason to think the United States is going to hand off its say in the future of interplanetary settlements to a republic of a few hundred colonists, as Musk envisions.
The question is how these two interests — an independence-minded billionaire and his colony, and a country whose interests lay solidly in the non-independence camp — will play out will be a critical question of the 21st century.
The United States might follow the East India Company model, letting private industry fuel expansion, until it grows large enough that it merits American territorial status. It might also declare strict control of the Mars missions from the beginning, relegating Musk’s dreams of independence to a distant future. As dependent as the company is on American funding, there’s not much SpaceX could actually do to stop it. In either case, bid welcome to our 51st state.
Alternatively, the United States also could wait too long. If the colony is well enough entrenched, and independence-minded from the causes above, actually preventing a declaration of self-government could be hard to stop. In that case, we could end up seeing a Martian Congressional Republic in the Expanse flavor.
All of these outcomes, of course, are only taking the United States into consideration.
4. Communists in Space
And the United States, sadly, is not the only world power with a say on the future of mankind. Some, namely Europe and other Western-allied states, may become enthusiastic about the idea of private scientific colonies on Mars. China, with its dreams of world power status, will not be one of them.
The regime can be fully expected to recognize the advantages an American-dominated outer space would bring in the long term and fight this tooth and nail. We can expect over the next 30 years to see competing Chinese enterprises trying to close this strategic gap at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.
If this fails, China may use its considerable sway over the United Nations and other international bodies to try and force an internationalization of America’s Martian colonies. This could happen regardless of whether they are private or government. Whether the United States goes along with this will depend much on the administration in office.
5. The First Trillionaires
Whoever controls Mars — be it America, China, the UN, or Musk — will hold an extraordinary say over the future of outer space. History has no shortage of examples showing that timing matters.
Whoever develops the technology needed to create a settlement on Mars is most likely to create a network of human colonies across the solar system. And whoever works this out will, more likely than not, be the first to bring the unimaginable wealth of the neighborhood’s natural resources home, and decide what happens to it.
What is a scientific curiosity and a comical tab in a terms of service agreement today will ultimately determine our future, both as a country and a species. There is a huge future ahead of us. And it helps, especially now of all times, to keep that in mind.