The Space Review

 
Mars astronaut illustration
Planting a flag on Mars doesn’t allow a country to claim territory, but there may be another way to support property rights and Martian exploration. (credit: NASA)

The International Agency for the Development of Mars

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, the Outer Space Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, laying much of the groundwork for modern space law. Perhaps its most important provision is Article 2, which states, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

Two years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin raised the American flag on the surface of the Moon. However, mindful of the treaty that it had recently signed, the United States stressed that the flag raising was purely symbolic and did not imply any form of American sovereignty over the Moon.

Today, the Moon, Mars, and all the other bodies in the Solar System exist is a sort of legal limbo. All nations are free to send scientific expeditions to any destination in the Solar System (if they can), but declaring sovereignty over them is strictly prohibited. Unlike the European voyagers of the Age of Exploration, modern explorers cannot claim new lands for king and country.

Aside from reducing nationalistic rivalry as a motivating factor for manned space exploration (a mixed blessing), the Outer Space Treaty presents a major problem for the advocates of space colonization: it makes impossible the buying and selling land on the worlds of the Solar System. Since no country can have legal sovereignty over moons and planets, no legal system can be in place to regulate the ownership of real estate. If nobody owns it, nobody can sell it.

Today, the Moon, Mars, and all the other bodies in the Solar System exist is a sort of legal limbo. Unlike the European voyagers of the Age of Exploration, modern explorers cannot claim new lands for king and country.

Suppose that, following the discovery of the New World in 1492, the European nations had signed a treaty declaring that no nation could claim any of the territory or resources in the newly discovered lands. The Spanish couldn’t have claimed Mexico, nor the French Quebec. King James I would have had no legal right to grant the Virginia Company of London a charter to establish a colony at Jamestown. Indeed, no European would have had the legal right to own a single acre of land or to cut down a single tree.

Doubtless, the Native Americans would have been just fine with this state of affairs. But as we are drawing an analogy to the colonization of the Solar System, we must set that aside. The pertinent fact is that had legal circumstances in the New World been similar to those that presently prevail in the Solar System, the establishment of European colonies in the New World simply would not have taken place. One can draw the obvious conclusion that, until the legal status of the Solar System changes, human colonies in the Solar System will remain but a dream.

In The Case For Mars, Robert Zubrin laments this state of affairs, insinuating that the lack of any legal mechanism for buying and selling Martian real estate is a contributing factor in holding back the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. He points out that the selling of Martian real estate could, by itself, go a long way towards financing a robust program for the exploration and colonization of Mars. At $10 an acre, the selling of Martian land could raise $358 billion, more than enough to send several manned expeditions to Mars and perhaps enough to establish a substantial permanent outpost.

There is an obvious question: even if they could, why would anyone want to buy an acre of Martian land? At present, the land is obviously useless from a practical point of view and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, people have been willing to pay for clearly spurious claims of ownership of lunar real estate, simply for the sake of novelty. If one could obtain a legitimate legal claim for genuine ownership, fully recognized by the world’s governments, I think many people would be willing to spend $10 an acre to buy Martian land, even if all they intended to do was frame the deed and hang it on their wall.

Aside from novelty, however, there may be practical reasons for buying Martian real estate right now, even if it cannot be properly exploiting and/or settled for at least several decades. As Zubrin points out in his book, people were spending huge sums of money to purchase land west of the Appalachian Mountains nearly a century before it was reached by white settlers. Even had they never intended to settle or exploit the land themselves, those who owned it could still sell their shares to others, who could either attempt to settle or exploit the land or, in a repeating cycle, sell their shares to a third person. A speculative market was thus created, and even such luminaries as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin got involved. As with any speculative market, vast fortunes were won and lost (mostly lost), but the most important result was the encouragement of Western settlement.

The simple fact that the land might be settled or exploiting at some point in the future gave the land shares value, and the British government’s claim of sovereignty over the territory provided a legally-binding framework in which the buying and selling of land could be done. Because of the Outer Space Treaty, no such legal authority exists for the buying and selling of Martian land. This simple fact is a major obstacle to the human settlement of Mars and, indeed, of the entire Solar System.

Aside from novelty, however, there may be practical reasons for buying Martian real estate right now, even if it cannot be properly exploiting and/or settled for at least several decades.

What is needed, therefore, is for the major spacefaring nations of the world to sign a new treaty, creating the legal framework for the buying and selling of Martian land. An international agency could be created to properly regulate the process and provide a legal and reliable regulatory system for purchasing and selling Martian land shares. What name it would go by matters little; in this article, let’s call it the International Agency for the Development of Mars (IADM).

This agency would function independently of any single government. In terms of its relations to the nation-states, the IADM might function rather like the United Nations, which was also created by a treaty among the world’s major powers but which is today an independent entity. Its power would lie in its jurisdiction over Mars, while its mission would be to properly explore and eventually colonize the Red Planet.

Our robotic probes have already mapped Mars in incredible detail. Indeed, we know far more about Mars today than the English knew about Kentucky in the century before the American Revolution. If they could sell shares of Kentucky land then, why cannot we sell shares of Martian land today? With the creation of a genuine market for the purchasing and selling of Martian real estate, the land of Mars would suddenly have a solid financial value, determined by the same supply-and-demand mechanisms that apply to any other item of value.

Since this treaty would not be giving sovereignty of Mars to any nation, but simply granting jurisdiction of the land to an international agency, it would not be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty. And even if it was, it can be easily argued that a new treaty among the spacefaring nations supersedes the old treaty.

If we judge by the history of financial speculation, we could expect the value of Martian land shares to experience a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. But on average, I would expect the value of Martian land even today to be well over the $10 an acre Zubrin suggests as a possible starting point. The IADM will be able to raise vast amounts of capital, which could be used to finance the dispatch of expeditions to Mars and the establishment of permanent outposts there.

As the exploration of Mars accelerates and serious moves towards genuine colonization are made, the value of Martian real estate will gradually increase. This, in turn, will lead to further infusions of capital to finance further efforts towards the economic development of the Red Planet. The further Mars moves to genuine exploitability, the further the value of its land will rise. With a bit of luck, we will see a positive feedback loop take form, where efforts to develop Mars result in increases in land value, which in turn leads to further development efforts, and so on. What happened in the American West might be repeated on Mars.

The main obstacles to the exploration and colonization are not technological, but financial and political.

The IADM should be structured so as to allow ordinary citizens to purchase land shares and prevent all of the shares from being gobbled up by governments and corporations. If this is successfully done, I think it’s possible that we will see a rebirth of a social drive which has been largely extinct for the last century: the push for the frontier. In an increasingly bland, stratified, and commercialized world, the desire to strike out on one’s own, to build a new home even in a harsh and unforgiving environment, will again come to the fore. By mid-century, I wouldn’t be surprised to see restless and adventurous people, the spiritual descendents of the American pioneers, buying Martian land with the full intention of settling it themselves.

As we know, the main obstacles to the exploration and colonization are not technological, but financial and political. The creation of the International Agency for the Development of Mars could unlock the untapped value of Martian land and use it to finance the exploration and colonization of the Red Planet. At the very least, it is an idea deserving of serious consideration by space advocates.


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