Legal Justice and Politics in Space

Image/Composite by Jeff Williams


How much rocket fuel does it take to shoot a lawyer into space? I don’t know, but whatever it is, it will be a necessary investment. Lawyer jokes aside, questions about laws, justice and politics off the Earth are in our future. What about your political party affiliation? Are you a Martian Republican? Asteroid Democrat? Are you with the Lunar Liberal Party? These might be serious questions if humanity advances enough to establish colonies with hundreds or thousands of people on other worlds in our solar system.

One Small Step for Lawyers and Politicians

Like it or not, soon after humans establish a significant foothold anyplace, there eventually comes a need for rules and government. First, we explore. Then we settle. Then we need lawyers and politicians. It is an historical fact of colonization and exploration. Maybe advanced alien civilizations figured out how to do it differently, but humans need government.

Consider formerly lawless places where we’ve explored that laws eventually formed.  Climbing to the top of Mount Everest used to have no rules. You climbed it any way you wanted and hopefully you didn’t die getting to the summit. Now thousands of people have successfully made the ascent. Today, the Nepalese government has a long set of regulations on climbers trying to ascend the highest mountain on Earth. There are regulations on who is allowed to make the climb and what assistance is legally required. You must also apply for an expensive permit.

Antarctica image from

Up until the mid-20th Century, Antarctica was an uncontested remote continent where any person or nation could travel and explore. But in 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations that governed territorial claims (none are allowed) and governed how science affairs be conducted. Antarctica remains a “no-man’s-land” and is set aside exclusively for scientific research. Hooray for the penguins!

Low-Earth Orbit used to be as lawless as the Wild West. But since a few nations and private ventures traveled into Earth orbit and launched satellites, we have laws that govern this ever-more crowded part of outer space. Nations have legal control over the LEOS (Low Earth Orbital Satellites) that they launch. International regulations already exist banning the detonation of nuclear weapons in Earth orbit. But soon, there will be international regulations on orbital debris and even telecommunications frequency as these become a problem for communications satellites and space stations. This part of the universe is no longer the final frontier.

Small Colony Political Systems

The first “moon base”. Photo from

Now on to the future. Someday, humans will establish a permanent lunar base. This may be a collaboration of multiple nations like with the International Space Station or this may be the efforts of a single nation. The laws that will govern the colonists will be the laws of that nation who established and supports the colony. They would include criminal and civil laws just as if the colonists lived at home. But then new regulations would need to exist that govern the unique environment. For example:

  • Dispose of waste from mining and exploration. In other words, clean up your tools after you’ve dug up rocks for science or harnessing minerals.
  • Dispose of radioactive waste from nuclear energy production. Let’s not have stray radioactive isotopes that could harm moon walkers who are not well shielded.
  • Travel limits for tourists.
  • Protection of the sacred Apollo mission sites. These sites are important historical ground. The artifacts left by the astronauts such as tools, inactive scientific experiments, vehicles, space suit parts, and even the golf balls hit by Alan Shepard on Apollo 14 must be protected like valuable museum objects. Many of the astronauts’ footprints will be protected just as we protect sacred documents on Earth.
  • We will need a re-definition of “controlled air space” as it concerns the Moon. On the Moon, you are immediately in outer space once you are not on the surface. So, at what altitude are you allowed to fly over another nation’s moon base before you violate their “air” space? On Earth, this is a complex subject that takes into consideration atmospheric pressure and practical orbital altitudes. On the Moon, it will be ever more complex, and we can’t begin to guess what will be acceptable.

Eventually, as a colony grows, the political system needs will get larger. A political body will need to form that manages resources, collects taxes, provides government services, handles foreign and domestic policy, and manages commerce. Who has rights to what limited resources? Also, police authorities will be needed and then judges and lawyers interpreting and enforcing laws. Some people on the Moon colony would not be engineers, pilots, or scientists. There would be career politicians.

In the book Artemis by Andy Weir (author of The Martian), he touched on some of what a government might look like on an established lunar colony. There was a mayor who had limited power to render criminal justice, establish, and enforce laws. Yet, the colony could not render punishment or legally convict a felon. Citizens of the colony needed to be sent back to Earth for criminal trials and punishment for serious crimes. The mayor could banish someone from the colony but could not incarcerate convicts or preside over legal proceedings. Established nations over 400,000 km away still had jurisdiction.

This is similar to the justice system in Antarctica or on a ship at sea where you are so remote and the government at home is too far away to perform all matters of justice on a practical level. Serious matters must wait until you travel back home. This would change once space colonies achieve true independence.

The Independence Shot Heard ’Round the Solar System

As a colony matures and the population grows to many thousands of residents and develops its ability to be almost fully autonomous, eventually there would be a movement toward independence as a sovereign state. Hopefully, breaking from the parent nation state would be peaceful and equitable and trade agreements would be negotiated. Their independent state would form whatever government organization they decide: President or parliamentary. I doubt we would see any dictatorships or monarchies. They would establish trade laws, immigration, travel, taxes, civil and criminal justice. They would probably have their own military and police force and agencies and departments as necessary to provide government services for all foreign and domestic needs.

Over time, perhaps several nation states could form with their regional laws adapted to their unique environments. For example, laws governing citizens to temporarily leave the protection of the colony should be strict. On Earth, traveling to another nation doesn’t involve stepping outside into a harsh, deadly environment and doing so won’t endanger people in the nation. Everywhere on the surface of the Earth, you can breathe the air and there is protection from harmful radiation. But if a person carelessly opens an airlock in a space colony, lives of many people are at risk.

Moon base concept. NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings [Public domain]
On the Moon, a person would need a special license before they are allowed to put on a space suit and go for a spacewalk. They would require certification after many hours of instruction, and this would be monitored closely. Laws and regulations on using any machinery or explosive chemicals that might possibly breach the habitat would also be necessary, as well as strict laws on anything that might put a dangerous gas into the artificial atmosphere of the habitat. Even if a habitat becomes many square kilometers in size, I would expect such rules since the safety of an entire colony would always be at stake.

But there are some laws that will make sense from a solar system perspective. Extradition laws are a good example. Can a criminal escape the authorities on Earth by traveling to the Moon? Do they go back? Who pays for it? When traveling is very expensive, unlike on Earth, where traveling all over the planet can be done cheaply, we may need to find a different way to deal with criminals who illegally traveled to outer colonies.

In the past when travel was expensive on Earth, if a criminal was on a colony and was captured, the authorities wouldn’t send them back to the home nation for trial. It was cheaper to enforce justice in the remote environment. Unfortunately, human laws in the past allowed for brutal punishments to be administered. A hopefully more humane interplanetary civilization will not institute capital punishment, torture, or slavery.

Other laws transcend your planetary body. Mineral rights are an example of this. A newly discovered deposit of valuable minerals found on the Moon is not necessarily owned by the person who discovers it. Who has the mineral rights to that land? If I discover oil or gold deposits buried on my own property where I own a house, they are owned by those who have mineral rights and not the owner of the house on the surface.

What about a new comet discovered on its way to the inner solar system? The discoverer of a new comet today gets to name it but that’s about all they get because all we can do is observe the comet. But when we are able to mine valuable resources from comets and asteroids, mineral rights to asteroids or a newly discovered comet heading toward us where we may be able to alter its orbit so it is more accessible, this question arises: Who gets rights to the resources of the comet? Also, who pays for the service to modify the orbit of the comet and sets up the mining facilities? Does it go to an interplanetary auction? Do we first need to determine how much gold, silver, platinum, iridium, or magnesium exists? We must pay for the prospecting and then we can auction it off and investors can take risks.

The United Federation of Planets

It is the distant future. Humans will have built many large colonies on the Moon, Mars, in large space stations orbiting the Earth, in large space stations orbiting the Sun, mining colonies on asteroids and science colonies around Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and on the moon Titan. We’ve finally arrived at a realistic Star Trek type of universe, except that ships are traveling around our Solar System and not the Galaxy. That whole “speed of light” limitation will probably be with us forever. No matter. A Captain Kirk can still be driving an advanced interplanetary craft that takes days or weeks to travel between human outposts. Some colonies will have multiple cities on the Moon and will function like large nations. Other colonies will be small outposts on outer moons, asteroids, or sun-orbiting space stations.

Would there be a United Federation of Planets? Why not? This is just the natural evolution of the United Nations when colonies expand off Earth and form their own independent states. Some laws make sense throughout the entire Solar System and Galaxy for that matter. Laws on human rights, claims of new territory, environmental waste disposal, helping ships in distress, piracy, salvage rights, trade disputes, weapons development (unfortunately war would probably still exist), immigration and asylum, and Solar System resource development would need to exist.

While Trekkies would love to call them the United Federation of Planets, the reality is that the colonies won’t just be on planets. Space stations, asteroids, and moons could all have their own government and be recognized as nation states. We would go from the United Nations to the United Space Colonies. Earth would just be a member. I will probably still be a member of whatever passes for the Lunar Liberal Party.