A Case for Martian Independence

As we approach the anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing on July 20th much of the focus in the emergent aerospace industry is not on the Moon, but instead on the potential for visiting and living on Mars. Unlike the Moon landings, it is not national space agencies that will lead the way. Instead, private corporations like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Orbital appear to be driving the course of mankind’s future activities in space. This shift away from state-driven space exploration towards corporate space exploration, in conjunction with the problems created by the existing outer space treaties (most prominently the Outer Space Treaty of 1967), creates an interesting strategic and legal environment surrounding Mars. I argue Mars should be an independent and sovereign entity from the beginning of human occupation. This case for an independent Mars will be based on three different areas: 1) the legal case for independence, 2) the strategic case for independence, and finally 3) the philosophical case for independence.

The concept of a Mars independent of both Earth and the various nation-states of Earth is not a new one. Most popularly examined in works of science fiction such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Cycle and James SA Corey’s The Expanse, Martian independence typically follows a hard-won road involving a conflict between Earth and Mars. From a more academic perspective, Sara Bruhns and Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science have devoted much of their work to the philosophical and legal concept of Martian independence. Bruhns and Haqq-Misra argue that making Mars independent is the best way to protect the common heritage of Mars for humanity and science. Haqq-Misra further argues that Mars be, in his words, “liberated from Earth” to allow for a “second instance of human civilization to emerge.” While this view is not entirely different from my own, a more direct case for Martian independence is laid out below.

The Legal Case for Independence

Perhaps the most important consideration for Martian independence emerges from the current set of treaties governing outer space, predicated primarily on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This treaty stands on two conceptual pillars that create a distinct problem for colonizing Mars under the current legal regime. First, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is built on the previously mentioned idea of the common heritage of all mankind. Much like Antarctica, outer space is considered to be part of the scientific commons. Outer space, including all celestial bodies, and of particular interest in this case, Mars, is to be preserved as best as possible for scientific research and study. While this was a strategic maneuver that made sense given the geopolitical climate of the late 1960s, it creates distinct problems for attempts to colonize Mars. The space treaties, including the Rescue Agreement of 1968, the Liability Convention of 1972 and the Registration Convention of 1975, place an emphasis on nation-states as primary actors, a reasonable assumption at the time of drafting. But in the last decade or so, private aerospace firms have emerged as major players in the exploration and exploitation of outer space. Several of these companies, including SpaceX, are on record as aiming towards the colonization of Mars as a surprisingly near-term goal.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk speaks at the third annual Recode Code Conference.

This leads to the second pillar of the outer space treaties, the concept of non-appropriation of outer space and celestial bodies. Again, predicated on Cold War logic, this concept means that signatory nation-states are not legally allowed to claim and own non-terrestrial holdings, and while extant treaties do not refer explicitly to corporate, non-state entities, this notion may be extensible to these firms based on country of origin. Regardless of the model for colonization, be it small-scale scientific exploration or large-scale civilization building, some type of appropriation will be necessary if only to allow colonists to become self-sufficient. The current legal regime is rather restrictive on this angle, and though attempts have been made to subvert this situation, as witnessed with the SPACE Act of 2015, a more complete overhaul appears to be necessary. Overhauling major international treaties is a long and arduous process, to which the 12 year-long (1982-1994) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas treaty process bears witness. A simpler solution, given the relatively short time frame presented for possible Mars colonization would be to simply declare Mars a sovereign entity apart from the United Nations. This independence would be from the beginning of human occupation, and independent Mars could possibly join the United Nations once a more conducive set of laws governing outer space has been crafted.

The Strategic Case for Independence

Beyond legal considerations, a strategic case for Martian independence can be made. Under a national colonial model, the various space powers on Earth could reasonably be seen to enter into conflict over the future of Mars. Mars represents a land mass greater than that available on Earth, with a possibility of massive resources to be exploited. Furthermore, Mars and her moons, Phobos and Deimos, occupy an important position between Earth, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets. Conflict over control of this point is easily foreseeable as mining of precious minerals in the asteroid belt becomes a reality later this century. An independent Mars has the potential to prevent conflict between the terrestrial space powers by declaring sovereignty over these bodies. Martian resources, controlled and gathered by Martians, would be best held independent from the conflicts of Earth, in hopes to forestall conflict between terrestrial powers over these resources. These conflicts could still emerge, reminiscent of the colonial struggles over Africa or China, but sovereignty could head off these conflicts as it will still be relatively difficult for nations to physically contest the claim. Mars as an independent entity could instead be free to trade and negotiate with the nations of Earth while holding the best interest of Mars front and center, as opposed to the various nations of Earth engaging in conflict over what Mars has to offer.

From a long-term strategic perspective, creating an independent Mars from the beginning could also prevent conflict as Mars begins to develop its own unique culture and demands independence from Earth much farther down the road. A non-independent Mars might not wish to become independent in the future, but the possibility that Mars would desire independence is an important strategic concern that must be addressed. Mars occupying a strategic celestial position will almost inevitably lead to conflict between terrestrial and Martian interests. The scale of destruction possible during conflict between different planetary societies is large enough that allowing Mars to be independent from the beginning outweighs the negatives that could emerge many decades in the future.

The Philosophical Case for Independence

As a new branch of humanity is created, they should...be free to create their own society...

Finally, there is a philosophical case to be made for Martian independence. The most likely end goal of a permanent occupation of Mars would be to make it livable without protective gear for humans, a project known as terraforming. As man would seek to change Mars, so too would Mars change man. The exposure to radiation and differences in gravity would cause the humans who live on Mars and their descendants, the first true Martians, to shift away from what we currently think of as human. As a new branch of humanity is created, they should, as argued by Haqq-Misra, be free to create their own society, as opposed to being directed by the conflicts of the old terrestrial societies. Mars would be for the citizens of Mars, building on the Wilsonian concept of self-determination. The tabula rasa that is represented by Mars should be free to develop itself and make decisions based on Martian concerns, not the old conflicts of Earth. The only just way to allow this to happen is to make Mars independent from the beginning.

Red, Green, and Blue Mars

Still image of Quaid and Melina on Mars (Total Recall, 1990)

The decline of state influence is especially prominent in the realm of space exploration. With most national space programs lacking for funding and vision, the private sector is taking an ever increasing role in the direction of space exploration. To prevent a corporate dystopia on Mars, the best strategic move to be made at this time is to demand that Mars develop a separate, sovereign government from the beginning. This is not to say that Mars would isolate itself from humanity, for Mars should be friend and trade partner to all of Earth, but Mars should be able to put its own interests at the fore. Mars holds great potential for humanity, and we as humans should do the correct thing to allow that potential to be best developed, which is to let Mars develop as a free and independent branch of humanity.

James Gilley is an Instructor of International Studies at Louisiana State University. He has a PhD in Comparative Politics and International Relations from LSU. His research focuses on the intersection of politics, technology, and society, with emphasis on space exploration and additive manufacturing.

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Header Image: Artist's Rendering of Mars and Earth (Getty Images)


Haqq-Misra, Jacob. 2015. “The Transformative Value of Liberating Mars,” New Space.

Bruhns, Sara and Jacob Haqq-Misra. 2015. “A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars,”  Space Polic.