Sheriff Elon Musk? Who will govern human space habitats, and how

Future space settlements will require some kind of governance model: can conventional approaches work or are alternatives needed? (credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)

A human space habitat is more than just its physical installation; as its name indicates, it will include humans, and they will need a system of governance. The study of new paradigms for governance in space should start now, so the governance infrastructure is ready at the time when we have the technical capabilities to commence life off Earth.

The need for new models of governance in space

Governance concerns how policy and regulation is made and implemented. Governance is what creates the regulatory and behavioral environment in which people and enterprises (companies, non-government organizations, etc.) operate. Ideally it is stable, yet flexible; efficient; and friendly for the people and businesses. For a space habitat, good governance is essential for mere survival, considering the harsh physical environment of space. It is also necessary for a sustainable and conflict-free operation of the habitat, economic efficiency, and even protection of human rights vis-à-vis the local authorities.

The current models of governance in space are Earthbound and states-based. Spacecraft and their crews are under the continuous supervision of the launching state.1 In the case of multi-state endeavors like the International Space Station (ISS), the participating states exert continuous supervision and control in a cooperative manner, while each state maintains an almost exclusive control over its part of the ISS and its crewmembers.2

Several factors call for considering a new paradigm for governance in space. At the visionary level, there is the idea of leaving behind national divisions and rivalries. In other words, do we want to see in space an American settlement, a Russian settlement, a Chinese settlement, and so on?

Another factor is the significant role of commercial entities in the settlement of space. National space agencies still have a crucial role with their in-house projects and with their support for projects executed or even initiated and led by the private sector, such as by SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace. However, private companies are taking increasingly important and central roles in various aspects of future space settlement, including by leading the way with self-initiated projects. SpaceX already provides launch services and Elon Musk famously unveiled plans in 2016 to establish a Mars settlement.3 Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Robert Bigelow, builds expandable space station modules and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic develops commercial spacecraft for tourism and other private access to space. There are many more companies of various sizes performing necessary functions across the spectrum of space activities. Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, both working to mine space resources, may provide both the economic feasibility of human space habitats and resources to use in situ, such as water, and could eventually require human settlements to support those efforts.

Local, private, or cooperative governance

If current models for governance in space are Earthbound and states-based, the search for new models needs to explore beyond these two characteristics. When human habitats will be independent, far into the future, local governance will make sense, if not be inevitable. In addition, but more immediately, private sector initiatives to establish human presence in space calls for contemplating their role in governance in space. Private sector governance is not altogether new: Polish history has known many “private towns” (miasta prywatne) owned by a private person or a family, established within lands owned by them, including what became to be important towns and even cities.4 We can also find in many countries “company towns” in which a single company is the main employer and owns most of the other facilities, including housing and the provision of amenities.

To be sure, giving a role to private actors in governance does not necessarily mean that we will see private habitats in space that are owned by space-mining companies or that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk will be the sheriff in the settlement they establish. The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company demonstrate the potential and pitfalls of granting a commercial company a license, or even monopoly, on certain commercial activities in new territories which is combined with quasi-sovereign powers.5 More generally, “private authority” is a long established and studied phenomenon in international relations, referring to situations in which non-state actors set standards and rules that are followed by other actors in the international level.6 There are positive and negative aspects for private authority, but, properly crafted, it is a viable alternative offering advantages, especially if implemented in conjugation with proper supervision of a public authority, national or international.

Intelsat, Inmarsat, and Eutelsat provide yet another alternative model for non-states-based governance in space. Providing satellites-based communication services, they were each established as a hybrid public consortium, an intergovernmental organization (IGO). Though they were all later on privatized, their success demonstrates the feasibility of such a model, especially in the early stage of the utilization of new technologies.

The settlement of space is led by a handful of states, but it is important to take into account the interests and spirits of all nations and the cultural heritage of humankind. The UN has a key role in ensuring that, via the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

From vision to mission

A century and a half after Jules Verne’s novels on a journey to the Moon and human life in space,7 the science is catching up with the fiction and the question is not if humans will live in space but how life in space will look like.

Concurrently with the efforts of engineers, biologists, and other scientists to develop the technical infrastructure for life in space, we must prepare also the governance infrastructure. The search and study of new paradigms for governance in space should start now, and be followed by a preparation of the corresponding policy decisions and implementing legal mechanisms, so all this is ready at the time when we have the technical capabilities to commence life off-Earth.


  1. “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution 2222 (XXI) of December 19, 1966, Article VI.
  2. Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) of 1998, the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) signed between NASA and each of the national space agencies of the participating states and the various Implementing Agreements between NASA and other national space agencies. See Diane St-Arnaud, Andre Farand, Motoko Uchitomi, Robin J. Frank and Igor Poroknhin, “The Legal Framework for the International Space Station”, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Legal Subcommittee, April 17, 2013).
  3. Elon Musk unveiled his plans at the occasion of the 67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2016. His presentation is available online.
  4. See Tomasz Pras, “Miasta Prywantne a Rzeczpospolita” (private towns and the Republic) Kwartalnik Historyczny 78 (1971), 28-48; Ryszard Szczygieł, “Miasta prywatne w Polsce od XIV wieku do 1772 roku – chronologia lokacji, właściciele, pełnione funkcje” (Private city in Poland from the fourteenth century through 1772 – the chronology of the site owners, their functions), Roczniki Dziejów Społecznych i Gospodarczych (Yearbook of Social and Economic Events) 77 (Special Issue) (2016), 13-45; Feliks Kiryk, “Małopolskie miasta prywatne w XIII–XVI wieku” (Private towns of Lesser Poland in the 13th–16th century), Roczniki Dziejów Społecznych i Gospodarczych (Yearbook of Social and Economic Events) 77 (Special Issue) (2016), 125–141; and Dorota Sikora­Fernandez, “Private cities, Spatial and economic consequences of gated communities in Poland” Research Papers of Wrocław University of Economics, issue 282 / 2013, pages 122–129.
  5. The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were each granted such mandate by their respective sovereign for the commercialization, and subsequent colonization, of new territories in the far east, notably Indonesia, India and China. These companies held powers normally associated with states, including to hold a private army (the British one had in a certain point an army twice the size of the British Army), wage wars, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties and establish colonies. While these companies had significant achievements, mainly to the sponsoring state, they also caused significant damages to the colonized territories and populations, notably the Great Bengal Famine of 1769–1773 that caused the deaths of up to 10 million people and blamed in part on the British East India Company. See, for example, John Keay, Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company (MacMillan, 1993); F.S. Gaastra, The Dutch East India Company: expansion and decline (Walburg, 2003); Henk den Heijer, “The Dutch West India Company, 1621–1791″, in Johannes Postma and Victor Enthoven, eds, “Riches From Atlantic Commerce: Dutch Transatlantic Trade and Shipping, 1585-1817” (Brill, 2003), 77-114; William Dalrymple, “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders”, (The Guardian, 4 March 2015) (accessed September 11, 2017); Amartya Sen, “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation” (Oxford, 1981), 39.
  6. See J.F. Green, “Rethinking Private Authority” (Princeton University Press, 2014).
  7. “De la terre à la lune” (“From the Earth to the Moon”), 1865 and “Hector Servadac” (“Off on a Comet”), 1877.