In Mars We Trust: Sovereignty and Governance on Our Next Planet

The once romantic pipe dream of a human presence on Mars is inching closer and closer to becoming a reality. Elon Musk and his aerospace company SpaceX stand out amongst a growing arena of players including NASA and the nonprofit Mars One in developing technologies to establish a permanent settlement there as early as the mid 2020s.  While success is highly dependent on the continued progress of technology, transportation and especially innovation which can enable habitation, the possibility has intellectuals and adventurers everywhere brimming with excitement. But one topic few discuss, save for Musk himself (because, of course, he’s that thorough), is the political aspect of such an endeavor. In examining the prospect of a second human civilization based on Mars, there ought to be a robust discussion about both the international political implications here on earth and the appropriate way to approach domestic Martian governance.

Discourse regarding a potential human presence on Mars has often been carried out using the vocabulary of colonization. But just what would Mars be a colony of? In the 1967 “United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, no planet can be appropriated by any specific country. So no, there will not be a “United States of America and Mars.” The nascent colonizers of the 2020s and 2030s are likely to be “international,” sharing expertise, technology, and Martian property – not tied to a single country. But who’s to say that a group of countries can’t annex an extraterrestrial territory? For example, NATO or the European Union could surely imagine some strategic benefits to possessing the sole outpost on humanity’s next frontier.

More likely, the political spacescape is destined to be dominated, at least in part, by corporations like SpaceX. Certainly, multinational corporations already command increasing power in a globalizing Earth. Private multi-planet entities are going to wield an extraordinary amount of leverage in proprietary technologies and talent, not fully funded, let alone elected, by taxpayers. Furthermore, national space programs have been waning in recent decades, particularly NASA, whose urgency and excitement centered on the US’s military rivalry with the USSR until the 1990s. As part of a larger decline, the moneys and labor devoted to the agency have reached all time lows. NASA commands about .5% of the federal budget, down from its peak of 3-5% in the 1960s, and employs about 18,000 people, down from almost 40,000 with hundreds of thousands of outside contractors. Still, the US outspends its closest competitor, Russia, by almost four to one. The steady decline has made room for private entities like SpaceX to make a big splash in the space arena. Policymakers should examine what kind of role these companies could and should play. Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this debate: perhaps humans will be capable of establishing multiple settlements on Mars, that way all of Earth’s players can jockey for natural resources on two planets instead of one.

Indeed, it is likely that the trajectory of history will hold: Earth “colonizes” Mars in some fashion, and its cultures, customs, and politics will play critical roles in shaping a Martian analog. Still, the question remains as to what kind of government might be suitable for humanity’s first interplanetary outpost. Musk envisions a direct democracy, where colonists vote directly on issues, to limit corruption. He also stipulates that it should be more difficult to create new laws than repeal ones that aren’t effective. He posited an example where it would take a 60 per cent majority to pass legislation but only require 40 per cent to repeal it. As if incentives for repeal aren’t strong enough, Musk also believes sunset provisions should automatically be built into any law, asserting, “if it’s not good enough to be voted back in, it shouldn’t be there.”

Critics suggest that Musk’s idea of governments is born more out of his distaste for modern politics on Earth, and specifically the US’s, instead of how a colony on another planet represents to him a shiny opportunity to begin anew. Beside the obvious omissions of a legislative administrator or a chief executive, there are problems with Musk’s ideal. The romantic prospect of an equitable, highly participatory, and libertarian society seems somewhat plausible on the surface, with a Martian settlement being composed early on of a few hundred highly educated, selfless, technocratic frontiersmen of sorts. But scaling out the settlement the way Musk envisions, potentially with millions of inhabitants, would complicate such a system. Socioeconomic divisions are bound to form, especially when the colony will need blue-collar workers, who would do important but “invisible” work. And then there is the inevitable friction between Martian “natives” (generations born and raised there) and the constant stream of newcomers from Earth. Furthermore, the extreme conditions of living on the Red Planet – such as catastrophic accidents, natural disasters, lethal epidemics – may cause inhabitants to call for a strong, commander-like figure to keep order and impose a rigid hierarchy of defined roles.

Perhaps human civilization on Mars shouldn’t be a colony at all, but rather an independent, sovereign, autonomous political body. Some, like Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Institute, believe that allowing Mars to develop its own technologies, governments, and even values with minimal interference from Earth will not only prevent Martian wars of independence but may help human Martians tackle many of the problems that plague Earthlings. Furthermore, it is possible that laws on Earth would not be able to accommodate the immense uncertainty of such a tenuous existence on Mars. In August of 2015, Haqq-Misra laid out guidelines to accomplish this independence. These guidelines stipulate total noninterference by Earth governments, corporations, and individuals, including the minimal sharing of resources and scientific research.

Of course, it’s a stretch to expect a corporation, country, or international entity to shell out billions of dollars to get to Mars only to relinquish any claim to its land, resources, and inhabitants. Interestingly, Haqq-Misra along with Sara Bruhns published a report in November that accommodates humanity’s inevitable lust for colonization. They call for a system of Earth country-established “planetary parks” – exclusive economic zones where colonists remain under the legal jurisdiction of their host nation. The plan also describes administrative Mars Secretariat to arbitrate disputes. While some point out that a true blank slate is impossible – colonists will bring their own cultural baggage and biases – eventually Martian culture would still evolve to be completely distinct from Earth’s. The critical question remains, though: who gets to make judgments on these questions about sovereignty and governance? Is it the prerogative of visionary entrepreneurs like Musk? Unelected international bodies and democratic representatives of states could make the case. Ultimately, Earthlings ought to champion the brave voyagers’ right to self-determination – the space to create a distinctly Martian society.

Works Cited:

Bruhns, Sara; Haqq-Musra, Jacob. “A pragmatic approach to sovereignty on Mars.” Space Policy 38 (2016).

Faust, Joshua. “The Scary Political Logic of Colonizing Mars.”

Fecht, Sarah. “Should Mars Be Independent, Or Just A Colony of Earth? Popular Science. August 25, 2015.

Grush, Loren. “Elon Musk thinks the best government for Mars is a direct democracy.” The Verge. June 2, 2016.

Szocik, Konrad; Lysenko-Ryba, Kateryna; Banas, Sylwia; Mazur, Sylwia. “Political and legal challenge in a Mars colony.” Space Policy 38 (2016).