With Elon Musk’s SpaceX unveiling plans for manned missions to Mars and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the concept interplanetary inhabitation isn’t as far-fetched as it once was.
“A new physical frontier is also a new legal frontier,” said Berin Szoka, an attorney and president of policy think tank TechFreedom and panelist for the session Making Law on Mars at South By Southwest on Friday.
Szoka and fellow panelist Peter Suderman, features editor at Reason magazine, discussed the current law governing space exploration and possible issues that may arise as more private companies, governments, and human activity venture into space.
Szoka walked attendees through the Outer Space Treaty—passed by the United Nations in 1966—which provides basic laws for international space exploration, including the prohibition of weapons in space and that states are liable for damage caused by their objects or spacecrafts.
Currently, the U.S. government has licensing regimes for companies launching satellites into space and also regulates launching and reentry, Szoka said. As space exploration continues to progress, governments around the world will need to determine how much or how little regulation to place on private enterprise beyond Earth.
Going forward, Szoka said the Outer Space Treaty will likely serve as the foundation for future space law. He said he could see regulation and laws in space that mirror tort law—allowing freedom of action in space but providing for penalties and damages when conflicts inevitably arise between actors.
And if self-sustaining communities are one day established in space? That’s when hypothetical scenarios get really interesting, Szoka said, involving issues of self-determination and potential declarations of independence.
“When it comes to law in space and in Mars people often just don’t talk about it at all,” Suderman said. “This is an exciting time in space exploration—not just about what’s happening but the possibilities about what could happen.”