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Opinion

The long arm of the law

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24th-May-2014       
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Thomas L. Knapp :
 "The biggest challenge to getting functioning space hotels and moon colonies might not even be, you know, building them and subsisting in space," writes Jason Koebler ("The First Space Colonies Might Be Illegal," Mother Jones, May 15). "Instead, it might be navigating the tricky international legal framework governing off-world ownership."
Koebler's concerns, which he hangs on the hook of talks at last week's 33rd International Space Development Conference, have to do with the existing treaty framework between nation-states, prohibiting national territorial claims in space but not addressing the growing "private sector" space movement. In order for space settlements to proceed apace, Koebler posits, "[T]he [US] State Department or some other national body is going to have to strike a deal with other nations - and other nations that want to do this are going to have to strike a deal with us."
But Koebler's concerns are, in a word, irrelevant as regards both government and "private sector" space colonization plans.
The states most likely to lead the way into space on a permanent habitation basis - the US, Russia and China - are de facto superpowers who won't think twice about abrogating the 1967 Outer Space Treaty or other agreements the instant they see advantages in doing so. And the corporations planning "private sector" projects will almost certainly leverage the protection of the states from which they operate to proceed equally unfettered.
What I find more promising, though, are the likely outcomes once humans have established permanent habitations off of Earth. "[T]here is enough wiggle-room in the language of the treaty that spacefaring nations can sign memoranda of understanding with each other to allow specific commercial activities," writes Koebler. But there's a lot more wiggle room in space itself to get away from nation-state memoranda and corporate "human resource" policies.
It's likely that both Earthbound nation-states and corporations will encourage the populations of habitations far from Earth to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible. It's neither cheap nor trivial to ferry people and supplies back and forth between Earth and low orbit or the Moon, let alone Mars or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.
And the instant those off-world habitations are self-sufficient - that is, once they are capable of providing their own shelter, air and air pressure, food and water without depending on the long and tenuous tether to Earth - odds are they will begin to feel limited (at MOST) obligations to their previous  nation-states or corporate bosses and will start doing … well, whatever they damn well please.
They won't be smack up against other societies contending with them for scarce resources, at least not for awhile. Nor will their old political and corporate bosses have the means to enforce any discipline upon them which they consider inimical to their own prosperity. They will feel free to innovate and to invent new modes of social organization, or to give second tries to old ones which failed on Earth the first time around.
The distance between Jolly Old England and its 13 American colonies in 1775, and George III's ultimate failure to impose his will upon those colonies, is instructive … and that distance pales next to the distances involved in space colonization and the means of transportation available. The long arm of Earth law will not be able to effectively reach them. And that means there will be no "space colonies" absent the ongoing consent of the colonists.

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