How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space?

A Future Tense event recap.

Participants sit in chairs on a stage in front of New America logos.
Erika Nesvold, Henry Hertzfeld, Yuliya Panfil, and Amanda Nguyen at New America
William Walkey/New America

As more countries and private enterprises alike venture off Earth, questions about how humans will live and work in space are increasingly important. At a July 10 event called “How Will We Govern Ourselves in Space?” Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—convened experts to discuss Cold War-era treaties, cautionary tales, and how imagining future space settlements could influence policy debates and challenges here on Earth.

Before we settle space, we might look to historical examples of exploration and settlement to better inform ourselves of the challenges we may face. As an example, Russell Shorto, contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and author of The Island of the Center of the World, discussed how the early settlements on what would become Manhattan might offer lessons for space. For colonial settlers, Shorto said, “North America might as well have been space. There was a sense that it didn’t matter what people did, and laws and morals didn’t necessarily apply over there.” The Dutch West India Co.’s colony New Netherland was ultimately ceded to the British. Shorto attributed that to the Dutch government’s failure to support the company as it faced competition from both international and local powers, like the English and the Native Americans. A lack of clear, decisive leadership spelled certain doom for the colony, according to Shorto. That experience serves as a warning for space settlers: The inability to anticipate and prepare for worst case scenarios will spell failure. Before going into space, we will have to imagine new situations and challenges in order to anticipate problems.

One challenge: We need to create a new framework by which humans will operate in space. The Outer Space Treaty, established in 1967, is one of the chief agreements dictating human behavior in space. Yuliya Panfil, director of the New America Future of Property Rights Program, said that it’s a relic of the Cold War—like much of the existing framework of space law, it focuses on nuclear proliferation and issues of national conflict, rather than issues at the cutting-edge of space exploration today, such as private ventures. But Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University noted that the gaps are being filled in in an incremental way. For instance, Congress has moved to allow private companies the ability to mine resources in space.

When we plan for the future of space exploration and settlement, we put a lot of thought into technology, money, and infrastructure, but as Bina Venkataraman, director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT pointed out the idea of permanent settlements must force us to think about the social questions of settlements: Who will get to leave Earth? Elon Musk has said that he wants it to cost about $500,000 to move to Mars—not a small sum.

And what will community look like in a space settlement? That might not even be the right question. Craig Calhoun, professor of social sciences at Arizona State University, argued that even “what we might mean by [community] is in question.” He said that space settlements are too often idealized as utopias, overlooking existing social issues. But the injustices of Earth, such as political repression or even slavery, could follow us to space, he said. Permanent space settlements might reflect the diverse and disparate communities we have here on Earth, rather than today’s space stations, with astronauts who all have similar training and education. Calhoun remarked that having goals and values in common might be one solution to creating the bond of “community” in space settlements with diverse populations.

Alex MacDonald, a senior economic adviser for NASA, added that the first local governments in space may struggle with having policy dictated from afar, as they try to reconcile national interests with those of the private sector. “The central tensions will be between the public sources of support that are the current, predominant sources of support and the emergent and increasingly capable private sector,” he said. “That isn’t a new balancing problem, it’s the balancing problem of social life.”

But solving those problems is important—not just because it will help dictate our success in space. As Erika Nesvold, astrophysicist and co-founder of JustSpace Alliance, said, “People are so enthusiastic about space, you can use that enthusiasm to talk about the issues we’re having on Earth.”

Watch the full event on the New America website, and read the Future Tense editorial series on the challenges of settling space.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.