If you’ve spent enough time reading about space exploration, you’ve probably heard of The Outer Space Treaty which essentially bans any government on Earth from laying a territorial claim to another world. Just because the United States landed on the Moon, in other words, doesn’t mean that our natural satellite can be called an acquired territory and turned into another state (sorry Newt, laws are laws) and considering that it was signed just as the USSR and the U.S. were at the height of their competition in space, you can see why. Rumors had been flying that the USSR wanted to use the Moon as a staging base for some of its ICBMs and the U.S. saw its Air Force draft the proposal for Project Horizon, a permanent military presence on the lunar surface. This plan didn’t seem all that workable but it was daring and in the heady days of Cold War mad science, just may have been tried and lead to a very different world than we have today, had politics not intervened. Fast forward to today and there’s a new contingent of humans interested in claiming ownership of the Moon at a libertarian think tank which believes that the treaty only applies to governments, not private industry, and argues that we should be laying claims on extraterrestrial soil to boost interest in space exploration and aerospace.
They do have a point when talking about the need for someone to claim ownership of assets on other worlds for business reasons. We certainly have innovative startups eager to make money through exploration and they’re cooperating with NASA on numerous current projects to make it happen. With a lot of focus and long term vision, something their founders certainly do not lack, they can come up with plans to monetize not only the act of getting into space, but working there, and their partnerships with the public sector would yield very significant dividends for scientists, educators, and yes, the military. Having places to land in emergencies, or land on which to build resorts and bases which will host everyone from scientists to soldiers, would be major pluese for the space infrastructure they’ll help build. But for them to actually build those bases and resorts, the owners and investors will want some assurance that no one can simply take over their operation, or that their projects won’t be mired in bureaucratic Hell while some diplomat pounds the table at the UN. Only being able to claim real, recognized ownership of an extraterrestrial territory could do that. Letting satellites serenely float above the Earth is one thing. You can’t claim that a certain range of possible orbits is yours any more than you can claim that a particular route through the ocean belongs to you, but land is much, much easier to own. Yet, actually owning and using land on another world comes with its unique practical and legal challenges.
Imagine that you’re the owner of Lunar Outpost Alpha, a sprawling complex built into the Moon and housing a few hundred people at any given time, running with your own fusion reactors and solar panels, and defending yourself from solar flares with a specially generated artificial magnetic field. Congratulations, you’re by far one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in 2065 and physically out of the reach and jurisdiction of all but a tiny handful of nations below you. Certainly you started off with immense support from your government but as you got up to speed and quickly made your base self-sufficient, you don’t need it anymore. If you suddenly had the urge to declare your base Lunar Prime and crown yourself The First Emperor of the Moon, it would actually be rather tough to stop you. Certainly the military of your home nation could send a special forces team to the lunar surface and persuade you to reconsider (read: turn you into a bipedal pasta strainer if you put up a fight) in theory. But they would have to face some serious legal ramifications in invading what claims to be a nation state on another world. The same problems that kept the aircraft platform country of Sealand supposedly its own state are amplified a thousand fold. Overpowering an extraterrestrial principality would create precedents for invasions in space and could be interpreted as violating The Outer Space Treaty’s remaining bylines. This would put a chill on continued work in space and trigger new laws and regulations for space travel.
Of course this potential incident is small potatoes and might never happen, but as humans reach farther into space and claim more and more territory farther and farther away form Earth, money becomes a rather moot point when it comes to land ownership on alien stellar bodies, especially in other solar systems. After long lives in space and entire generations away from Earth, new cultures will form, cultures that may have very little in common with the planet from which they started. Claiming land would become more of a political exercise; planets and moons wouldn’t be so much private territory for conducting business as sovereign land of a new government based entirely off Earth, armed with its own army and air force (not much use for a navy on worlds without oceans to patrol), and extremely tough to re-annex without a very protracted and expensive war. Going further out still and the territories may no longer matter as humans could start diversifying into new species that may well become creatures we would fear returning. When we’re close to home, we have a lot more communication with those who live there. But the further out we go and the more difficult it becomes to stay in contact with Earth, the more independent our colonies will have to be. And the more independent they are, the less reason they’ll see for staying a part of the earthly government which sent them into the dark void of space and gave them the right to claim their territory. Sure, this forecast is very, very long term, but when we’re talking about space, we have to think long term since alien worlds can’t be settled with short-term thinking…
[ illustration from EVE Online ]