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The idea of governance within space, on planets, or in space stations has raised many questions. For example, would the laws of the launching country apply in settling a legal matter that occurred in outer space, or would only the laws adopted independently by the space settlement be valid? And, if more than one country sponsored the expedition, which country's laws would be binding and who would enforce these laws? Furthermore, is it realistic to expect space settlers to defer to the authority of a country that it may take months to reach by space travel? These are only a few of the questions that the concept of space governance generates.

Political Philosophies and Self-Governance

Because of Earth's problematic history with colonization it is thought that some degree of self-governance would likely be suitable for space settlements. The following political philosophies demonstrate the broad spectrum of views as related to self-governance.


Libertarians believe in self-governance as related to both personal and economic issues. According to libertarians, the government's only role is to provide protection from coercion and violence. Libertarians value self-responsibility and tolerance of diversity.

The Libertarian view assumes a high level of individually motivated honest behavior. There is no strong deterrence to criminal activity apart from contending with one's own conscience. But the Libertarian approach could potentially find acceptance in space settlements where populations will initially be small and the degree of self-responsibility high.


The political philosophy of Left-liberals is self-governance in personal matters accompanied by a mechanism for central government to make decisions on economic issues. Among Left-liberals, there is a strong agenda to have government provide for the needs of the disadvantaged. Leftliberals would likely allow self-governance in space to the extent that government sponsored social programs could still be financed.


Centrists support government intervention on some issues but stress pragmatic solutions to social problems. Centrists would probably see self-governance as a practical strategy to governing small space settlements but would defer to more government intervention as the settlements grew and public problems increased.


Right-conservatives have essentially the opposite philosophy of Left-liberals. Right-conservatives want people to exercise self-governance when it comes to economic issues, but still want the government to protect society from threats to morality.

The current fiscal situation for many space expeditions and settlements involves a hefty price tag. It takes large groups, either private or public to plan and implement projects such as the settlement of Mars. Therefore, the Right-conservative desire for self-governance in economic matters may not be compatible with the high expenditures that would accompany space colonization. At some point in the future, conservative religious groups may seek to advance their moral agenda through space settlement, as did religious groups such as the Puritans and Quakers of colonial America.


Authoritarians do not see self-governance as a practical alternative, as they would prefer that the government foster advances to humankind by central planning. Left-authoritarians are also referred to as socialists, Right-authoritarians as fascists.

An authoritarian approach to space government would involve either deference to a political government on Earth (i.e., no self-governance) or the establishment of a central government power in outer space. Resource concerns would apply to the latter because a dedicated central government in space would add to the costs of the space settlement.

Free-Governance in Outer Space as Compared to Governments Used in Colonized Countries

We can look to history to learn how colonization has been handled, at what point power may have shifted from a distant sovereignty to governance by the occupants of the territory, and what the implications are for the colonization of space. At this time we do not have any indigenous, or pre-existing populations on other planets, so at least for now the topic of governance in space refers to the legal issues of persons coming from Earth. Maybe at a future time settlers from Earth will become the indigenous population of a space settlement in free space or of a planet.

Settlement Colonization.

The original European colonies in the Americas were treated as the property of each respective colonizing European country (Great Britain, Spain, France). Laws were changed, as they would likewise need to be changed in space environments, to take account of special environmental conditions. Generally, however, colonists maintained whatever legal and political rights they had possessed in the colonizing country. This resulted in the colonial governments and laws differing greatly in the Americas, as they did between countries in Europe. Space governance may also differ between space settlements and levels of self-governance are likely to also vary.

Because Great Britain had a representative parliament and a monarchy with limited authority, settlement colonies adopted cabinet governments, and after 1931 became sovereign states, keeping only an allegiance to the crown. Likewise, in the realm of space governance, allegiance to original colonizing countries is likely to exist as well as a certain degree of representation in a legislative body. Perhaps a representative from a space settlement will hold a seat in a national or international legislative body on Earth and will participate in hearings remotely.

Natural conditions may modify laws in space. For example, the remoteness created by the Atlantic and consequently, the length of time it took to transmit communications, made control of Great Britain's colonies in America impractical. The setting produced a tough individualism with inhabitants making their own decisions. Government reached the frontier only gradually, and conditions of anarchy often prevailed. A rugged individualism like in the pioneer days of America could also happen in space. Technology exists to maintain communications, but there may be issues of enforcement because travel takes months to maybe years to accomplish.

see also Communications, Future Needs in (volume 4); Interplanetary Internet (volume 4); Living on Other Worlds (volume 4); Political Systems (volume 4); Social Ethics (volume 4).

Nadine M. Jacobson


Fawcett, James E. S. Outer Space: New Challenges to Law and Policy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1984.

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