America in Space

By Sally Morem
Note to readers: This essay first appeared in “L-5 Points,” the newsletter of the Minnesota Space Frontier Society in its Summer 1987 edition in honor of the Bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention and the Northwest Ordinance. Aside from correcting typos and grammatical errors, I haven’t changed a thing.

Space activists have compared the human movement into space to the migration of ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to new lands, the exploration of Vinland by the Vikings, the voyages of Columbus to the New World, even the movement of life from the sea to land. I would like to suggest an analogy of more immediate interest: Humans could move into space in a manner similar to the American pioneers moving out West in their covered wagons. Wherever they went, those pioneers took their cultural and political institutions with them, planted them in new lands, and allowed them to take root and flourish by creating new territories and states equal with the old in which the pioneers could flourish. Out of this amazing synthesis of stability and creativity, a greater nation arose, one which could hardly be imagined by its founders in the original 13 states in 1776. Space pioneers could do this, if they choose. They could, in effect, take America with them into space. Many pioneers, instead, would choose independence. They would relish the challenge of creating new societies from scratch with new laws shaped by the radically different physical and psychological conditions of space. Others would accept rule by one of the more traditional national governments on Earth. These societies would not be allowed much

autonomy, but the citizens would appreciate the stability of tradition that such rule would provide. Whichever path they choose to take, space settlers will have to deal with the fundamental problem of society—sovereignty. Basically, sovereignty provides the society with the means to do what is necessary to protect itself and its citizens and to further its overall goals. Consider all the problems a society must overcome in order to survive and grow in space. It must defend itself from military attack, cosmic rays, meteors and space junk. It must secure enough resources to run its many operations and to supply its citizens with what they need. It must encourage the development of economic and scientific enterprises that will enable it to attract intelligent and industrious immigrants. And, it must enable its citizens to produce and deliver goods and services to other societies so it can get what it needs in exchange. In order for any of this to happen, the space society needs a good legal framework within which it and its citizens may act. Rules for individuals and groups are necessary for any kind of coordinated activity to take place. This is especially true for Space Colonies since they would have special legal problems. (The term “space colony” refers to a very large space structure, several miles in diameter, spun for artificial gravity and given an Earth-like environment. “Colony” in this usage has lost its political connotations.) Space Colonies must secure the right to unimpeded use of certain orbits and the right to a protective zone of space surrounding each Colony—a kind of Sphere of Influence—which no one may enter without challenge. These rights are absolutely required for obvious safety reasons. Colonies must also secure the right to unobstructed solar energy and access to all lunar and asteroidal material they are able to afford. We can see from these descriptions that life in space will not be wild anarchy, as portrayed in some science fiction stories. Space is too dangerous for such political delusions. Individual freedom can be made much more widespread in space than it is now on Earth, but in order for this to happen, well-designed legal systems must be put in place and be enforced. Exact details will await legislation, negotiations and hard work by space lawyers.

Life will probably be very regimented in the small space stations and Lunar mining camps that will be constructed during the early phase of space development. Most likely, these places will be run as classic hierarchies by the military and commercial ventures. People used to such discipline will live and work there. But, as large, Earth-like Space Colonies are built, a wide variety of people will move there, find jobs, set up households, and arrange themselves into societies of their own choosing. Most will heartily dislike the regimented life-styles of the space stations and will resist being forced into their mold. The roominess and comfort of Space Colonies will allow them to make their case to the authorities…and win. And, they will be right. Strict regulations and regimentation are necessary for small, fragile human habitats such as submarines, camps in Antarctica, and Lunar bases, but will not be needed for Space Colonies. Their size alone would be protection enough against all but the most cataclysmic event. Consider the ever-present danger of leaks in a structure in space. Even if a meteor punches a yard-wide hole through the side of a Colony—a highly unlikely event—it would take several hours or even days for all the air to escape into space. Colonies will be webbed with sensors, which would be able to detect and report the exact location of any leaks seconds after they begin. Colony crews would have ample time to get to the site and repair the damage before any appreciable change in air pressure occurs. This means that we must revise our mental image of the besieged space pioneer, constantly fighting the cruel environment of space. And we must also revise the assumptions that follow as a result of our flawed mental images—our stereotypes of what the best political system would be for space settlers. At first glance, democracy may not appear conducive to the development of stable space societies. It involves chaotic, uncontrolled decision-making processes that, if left to themselves, could destroy a society. Popular opinion cannot be allowed to overrun necessary safety rules in the space environment. But, the very size of Space Colonies would take the pressure of conformity off the settlers while allowing them to maintain safety standards. Settlers

would find themselves free to develop American-style free-flowing information and decision-making networks that allow them to take full advantage of the rapid growth of knowledge the human presence in space would generate. Authoritarian societies were fashioned by people during the era of slowchanging agricultural civilizations. They were designed to react predictably to predictable situations. It is no coincidence that their modern counterparts have great trouble dealing with a rapidly changing information age. On the other hand, democratic societies seem to be designed with the late twentieth century in mind. The highly praised rights and freedoms of democracy, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly are not just valuable guarantors of individual autonomy, they also function as crucial feedback mechanisms, allowing important information to flow rapidly where it is needed. Information is the lifeblood of the modern democratic state. If it is stopped, the patient is in danger of having a coronary. And so, the wise space pioneer would do well to insist on democracy with all the legal protections developed over the centuries. If a Colony denies settlers democracy, they must make sure that they are able to move to a Colony that provides it or build a Colony of their own. This means that with the vast proliferation of space societies sure to come, the creation of specifically American space states is not only possible, but probable. Space pioneers would reason that if you wanted democracy, it’s best to go with a 200-year-old reputable firm. Americans would certainly do so. As I have stated before, Americans tend to take their institutions with them wherever they go, especially when they go in large numbers. And a futureminded people like the Americans will certainly go into space in droves when the opportunity is made available. American statehood would combine the advantages of independence with the advantages of retaining the legal traditions of home. Many futurists and science fiction writers have described detailed scenarios of frustrated space colonists struggling to free themselves from the political tyranny of Earth. None, so far as I can determine, have postulated the possibility of creating political structures that would allow for a large amount of local autonomy

while retaining a body politick that extends from an area of Earth to areas in space, one in which citizens retain all political rights and freedoms no matter where they live within it. A political and economic commonwealth of many parts, such as this was established in 1787 with the framing of the American Constitution and the establishment of the Northwest Ordinance. The Constitution provides a common market for the entire nation in which the free flow of goods and people cannot be impeded without due process while creating a multi-level, federal framework for states and communities to develop their own laws and make their own political experiments without unduly affecting the rest of the nation. The Northwest Ordinance established the Northwest Territory and provided for the creation of future territories and their orderly transformation into states. The key to the peaceful development of a genuinely democratic Solar System civilization may have been forged in the heat of a Philadelphia summer during debate on a Constitution and as the last creative act of an enfeebled Confederation Congress under the waning powers of the Articles of Confederation. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time in history when people had accomplished far more than they knew. In order to make an expanded federal structure work, all levels of American society must respect the needs and responsibilities of the other levels. Politicians and activists must stop insisting that Washington run everything. It can’t now. And it certainly won’t be able to when space states start joining the Union. States and communities must retain and expand their power to make laws reflecting local conditions and experiences. The Federal Government must retain the power to oversee the whole, to coordinate activities where it must and enforce compliance with Federal law, especially the Supreme Law of the Land—the Constitution. A properly constituted federalism will give America the unity and flexibility it will need in order to contribute fully to the ever-growing, ever-changing space civilization to come.