The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 6

The administrators of the first Mars Colony will need to be expert in more than just science. Legal and economic factors will have a huge bearing on the success of the colony. Without a firm legal basis, the colony will have difficulty attracting investment, and private individuals may think twice about participating. Without a vibrant economy, the colony could turn into a ghost town.

Jurisdiction and Law

Law books - Flickr Creative Commons - Angelo DeSantis
Law books – Flickr Creative Commons – Angelo DeSantis

Much has already been written about jurisdictional issues and space, particularly with regards to the ownership of extra-terrestrial bodies, and legal scope. I will include some links in the final post, and limit this to some relevant points.

It is relatively easy to avoid jurisdictional issues entirely when dealing with short-term missions. However, when discussing a permanent space colony, the ownership of the colony, private ownership rights of individuals, and legal framework become critical.

The topic of space law can be extremely dry and technical. It is worth “gaming out”  scenarios though, to illustrate the issues.

There are any number of countries on Earth that I would feel great discomfort investing in, let alone visiting.

Lets say for the sake of example that I bought a plot of land in a fictional place called Nastystan, and then the president-for-life’s brother-in-law decided to take that plot of land for his own purposes.

In countries with a well-established rule of law, I could rely on title registries and the legal system to establish my ownership.

In Nastystan, my only recourse would be to sue (at great personal cost) in a different jurisdiction (there are only a few that will take on these sorts of cases, and generally only for the protection of their own citizens).

Assuming that I won, the Republic of Nastystan would most likely simply refuse to pay. I would then need to spend a large sum of money in an attempt to repossess international property belonging to the Republic.

This sort of thing happens quite frequently on Earth. It is generally only worth pursuing cases like this when vast amounts of money are involved, and generally only companies with huge legal war-chests are able to do so. How much more so when the property is on another planet, and it isn’t clear who has jurisdictional responsibility.

I would feel great discomfort as either a colonist or an investor in some form of space resources if I wasn’t absolutely clear about both the likelihood of getting my capital back, and my personal safety in case of conflicts (which will inevitably happen).

I would want to know well in advance who has ultimate authority (i.e. a terrestrial government, the UN, a government agency, the bodies responsible for building the colony, or someone else to be determined) for legal matters, and I wouldn’t set foot there without being able to consult – in paper format, with relevant treaties cross-referenced – the rules and regulations.

This could well be an issue for colonists from Western countries. The colony will attract people from all over the world (plus there could well be more than one colony on Mars, with different sponsors), and there won’t be a specific starting culture. If the colony doesn’t have a specific terrestrial country as its ultimate jurisdiction, then the laws will initially not be fully fleshed out or enforced (i.e. think Wild West), or will be created in-situ by the colonists – and will not necessarily be comfortable for Westerners. Determining jurisdiction – be it a terrestrial country or otherwise – is critical for determining what kind of place the colony will be.

To illustrate this, what happens if somebody does something that was relatively innocuous on Earth – say littering, or lighting a fire, or releasing gases that clog the filters – that are life-threatening on Mars. What is the legal implication? Do we fine them? Do we throw them out of the airlock without a spacesuit? Lynch them? These are questions that need to be resolved – preferably before they are required. Failure to properly consider them will have negative ramifications for the colony’s future.

Sorting out the legal foundation for the colony is likely to be very high on the to do list for its administrators. I find it fascinating that “soft” factors like these can sometimes be far larger bars to progress than any technical innovation.


In the 1400s, an entrepreneur by the name of Columbus scored a sizable Round A financing deal with a super-angel investor with capital from the Spanish government retirement fund. The business model needed a few pivots (gold; meh) but ultimately panned out, although the original investors exited too early (under some duress).

In all seriousness though, nobody expects the Americas to have a single resource-based, export product that solely justifies the existence of humans there.

The economic justification for Mars is going to take a long time to pan out – possibly centuries. Vast sums of speculative coinage will be invested before the “business model” for Mars will really be properly understood.

If sufficiently large numbers of people can be enticed there, it won’t just be a bubble though. Homo-economicus will do many different kinds of things there, and ultimately that will result in the real GDP of the solar system going up.

That said:

  • We shouldn’t underestimate the vast amount of capital that will be required, over many decades, to get things moving. Sending the first few people may ultimately “only” cost a few billions of dollars, but building cities on Mars is going to take a similar level of investment to that required to make the Americas happen. I don’t want to think about what that is in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  • Initially, it may well look like a classic bubble (don’t worry, even the South China Sea eventually became a real deal).
  • A bit of mining, hospitality (fanciest hotel in the solar system!), and manufacturing for local usage will create jobs, and produce real economic activity. It won’t be enough on its own, but it may be sufficient to get the ball rolling.
  • Who knows? Self selection of colonists will likely result in many smart, aggressive, curious people making the leap. And with the speed of light as a limitation, the level of distractions will be lower than many places on Earth. Mars could be a great place to get work done. Could, in fact, be an excellent place to do software development…

Continued here.

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4 responses on “The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 6

  1. Patrick Ritchie

    Ha! Love that description of the columbus as a startup founder and Isabella as super angel 😉

    Law is one of the few places i think we can take immediate action to incentivize the space industry. If a large country or group of countries such as the US or the EU was to ratify a treaty that described in some detail the conditions under which a land claim would be recognized i think it would go a long way towards encouraging development.

    I haven’t read the whole thing, but this article covers property rights in space:

    Economics for Mars is a very interesting topic. As you correctly point out there will be a large amount of initial funding required to establish the colony. I suspect the most likely initial export from Mars will be technology. Being on the frontier will put enormous stresses on the colony to push the limits of what is possible. Exporting these technologies is simply a matter of transferring the data, meaning high value can be transmitted at low cost.

    Getting the ball rolling will be challenging, but I personally believe that much of the value in colonizing Mars is in the intangibles. How do you value making life multi-planetary?