Who will colonize Mars

Space travel, colonization and profit: does earthly law also apply on Mars?

For most of us, going to the moon or Mars is an unrealistic endeavor. But the many times that the entrepreneur Elon Musk has shared his visions of colonizing other planets in the past few years give a lot of thought impulses: How can one imagine life and coexistence outside the earth? What rules should there be for this?

The current legal situation is poor: It is based primarily on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which only allows peaceful use and is supposed to forbid the national appropriation of celestial bodies. However, space technologies such as satellites are already used for military purposes.

And private companies like Space X or Blue Origin want to secure as much freedom as possible - they have even stated in a clause in their terms and conditions that they do not want to recognize international law on Mars.

"There are increasing numbers of attempts to bend and undermine space law," says Daniela Gandorfer, a legal, cultural and social scientist who dealt with the subject in her dissertation at Princeton University. "Space law has not explicitly considered private companies, which is why there is a lot of legal controversy in the USA as to whether the ban on appropriation also applies to them. It is undisputed that we need a revision of space law."

Where does space begin?

The The Hague working group, for example, wants to contribute to the development of an international legal basis, bringing together several organizations and involving industry. "For my research, the question arises which interests are being pursued," says the 32-year-old Austrian. Among other things, she deals with the legal bottlenecks and discussions that take place in and around space, and with what these say about our legal thinking.

It starts with the fact that it is still unclear where space begins. There are various attempts at definition, for example on the basis of physical forces that act on a body at different heights. However, this is not clearly defined legally.

"This boundary is important because it separates two legal systems - state airspace and outer space, which is sovereign and must be viewed internationally," says Gandorfer, who is currently doing research at the University of California in Santa Cruz and is working closely with a quantum physicist and a legal philosopher. Physical rules and matter play a role in such considerations, but are hardly considered in abstract legal systems.

No right to breathe

An example clearly shows what seems natural to us and is therefore not regulated by law: Laws on earth assume that oxygen is available to breathe. Therefore there is no anchored "right to breathe". It looks different in space - but actually not only there. "The very topical question is what breathing means in the context of a pandemic, such as refusing to wear a mask to protect against Covid-19," says Gandorfer.

Further parallels can be drawn with the slogan "I can't breathe" of the Black Lives Matter movement. Air pollution, for example, also plays a major role: "There are efforts to achieve a human right to clean air. That is an important issue - but the right to breathe cannot really be thought of as universal, because the situation is not the same everywhere and this does not result in many injustices would take into account, "says Gandorfer. "That shows the limits of our legal thinking."

Dangers become clear where we want to transfer previous problematic features of our legal systems to space. To show this, the researcher analyzed how academic space literature imagines law in space and on alien planets.

Many considerations from very different disciplines sound as if they had been copied from a dystopian science fiction novel: There is talk of penal colonies on Mars in which "criminal elements of society" are used to build a settlement. Other authors suggest that in the event of an oxygen shortage, people who cannot afford it should breathe less - an oxygen diet.

Legal rethinking

"This shows the conscious and unconscious strengthening of colonial, violent tendencies, which unfortunately also belong to the roots of international law," says Gandorfer. In addition, there is the dubious focus on profit. Such considerations for other planets can be compared, for example, quite earthly with fighting forest fires in California: In the most dangerous places prison inmates put out fires for one dollar an hour.

"More and more researchers argue that such treatment of prisoners should legally be viewed as slave labor," says Gandorfer. Her case studies can be read in more detail in the book "Matterphorics: On the Laws of Theory", which is due out soon.

"Space is a sphere that increasingly shows the violent tendencies of the legal system, which we often imagine to be universal and just," says the scientist. She advocates a new understanding of law that is less general and abstract, but more closely linked to the world and its processes.

In order to think further in this direction, she and her colleagues founded the research agency "Logische Phantasie Lab". This is part of the Ethics Institute of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and is intended to promote projects from various disciplines that deal with forms of social injustice. (Julia Sica, February 25, 2021)