Space exploration is as fascinating as it is frightening. With plans to explore Mars and beyond proposed for upcoming decades, sooner rather than later, the logistics of governance become increasingly important. Throwing a wrench into the conversation is the introduction of commercial space exploration.
SpaceX has been all over the news as the latest and greatest in space technology. Their recent rocket launch taking two astronauts to the International Space Station, and bringing space travel back to the United States, was a huge step for the company. Similarly, their roll-out of satellite array-based internet Starlink is another innovation in space technology that serves as critical infrastructure for future space exploration.
In the Terms of Service for Starlink, we find the controversial statement: “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. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”
This statement raises a multitude of questions about the ethics and justification of law in space. International space law, governed by five international treaties and agreements, as well as encouraged by five declarations and legal principles of the United States General Assembly, serve to promote the welfare of space law of the moon and other celestial bodies. Understandably, the language is vague, especially in defining what other celestial bodies are being referred to. However vague, the United States likely wouldn’t take kindly to a corporate entity in its jurisdiction blatantly violating lawsit has sworn to uphold.
SpaceX clearly seems to understand the current space law in their Starlink terms, stating that: “For Services provided to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon, these Terms and any disputes between us arising out of or related to these Terms, including disputes regarding arbitrability (“Disputes”) will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of California in the United States.”
As it stands, Starlink is abiding by current law, treaties, and guidelines, in what they believe is the current statute of limitations to its jurisdiction – to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon. In this jurisdiction, California law applies, transitively abiding by all space law as well. However, outside of this, in transit to or on Mars, is no-man’s land.
Starlink’s apparent notion that this new land needs new, updated space law certainly is valid. However, “finder’s keepers” style does not seem like the way to go about this complex subject. If this were to come to fruition without intervention, it would set a dangerous precedent that the first settler of any new area can decide the law of the land. Any corporation or government with the required funds and technology could set up a new galactic empire without competition. And when it comes to the point of others catching up, disputes over territory and ownership could lead to unavoidable conflict.
On the other hand, the lust for power can be a great driving force. If this were a new opportunity for corporations and countries to expand their power and wealth, what is to say we wouldn’t see more investment in space exploration. This is certainly a poor reason to fund such endeavors, but some might argue that the exploration itself is more important than the impetus behind it, no matter how nefarious or selfish.
The current reality is that none of this will be attainable near enough to cause significant worry. Perhaps SpaceX just seized an opportunity to cleverly share their libertarian views on space exploration. And like many other companies, a quick change to their Terms of Service could wipe this all away. However, the fact remains that this is a real problem for the future and deserves to be spoken about now. Although this policy is subject to change as new developments occur, the earlier corporations, countries, or ideally world governing organizations, can engage in productive discourse about this new age of space exploration, the more successful these projects will be in the future.