Review of “Statehood in Space” by Phillip Bosshardt

This post was originally posted on at September 11, 2012


On the site of the National Space Society I found the following article of interest. In this posting I will provide some critical comments. The article is about statehood in space, which is our ultimate aim. Since the article is composed of five parts, I will present my comments for each part separately.

General comments

This article is written in the 1980s, in that time the cold war was going on and the Soviet Union still existed. Since then the popularity of space programs is in decline. Furthermore the author is clearly assuming that Space settlements programs will be state sponsored, something for which I have some reservations.

Part one

This part is titled “the law of the frontier”. Bosshardt begins with stating that humans are social beings and gives subsequently a short historical overview of the emergence and evolution of human societies. He states that law is the institutionalized form of conflict, the he proceed to the common idea that space law should or could be based on maritime law. Thereafter he criticizes the idea that space is common property of the entire mankind. The author concludes this part that space law should provide a framework in which natural development can occur.

The main issue with this part is that it presumes that space settlements will be initiated by governments rather than by private individual, corporation or non-profit organizations. Whereas states are bound by international law, we could question in how far space law is relevant to private parties, especially those who are (completely) privately funded. Formal agreements between states do not necessarily bind individuals. Of course states can force their citizens to obey those agreement, but if space settlers are outside the jurisdiction of said states then they can exercise their own full sovereignty. Furthermore an extremely powerful state, such as the USA or China, could choose to simply ignore those agreements and history shows that states are more than willing to violate treaties when they see fit to do so.

Part two

In this part Bosshardt discusses the nature of human communities in the strange environment that is outer space. Before discussing how space based communities, he asks what a community is. Then he points out that early space settlers are one of the most interdependent social groups in human history, since lack thereof would be fatal. Then the author sums up a few challenging differences between terrestrial and space environments and he also correctly points to the fact that space based societies are more dependent than terrestrial communities on technology. Subsequently he makes a comparison between the small high-technology business corporation and the organizational model of a space colony, and I think he is right in this.

Subsequently the author compares the settlement of outer space with the colonization of the new world and India through chartered companies. I am not quite sure whether his comparison is actually relevant for space settlement programs, especially the point on the exclusive privilege of those companies. Although I admit that there are some similarities between the colonization of the new world and space settlement, I believe this analogy is also partially misleading. Then the author discuss the economics of space settlements and states that cities have always been located near resources, and space settlements will not be different. Thereafter he summarizes the differences between terrestrial and space settlement in this respect, due to the influence of a central gravitational field.

A few paragraphs later the author states that space settlements will be completely dependent on supplies from Earth for some time. As a consequence of this space settlements have to rely on trade for survival, which requires the skills for negotiation and bargaining. This is basically true, especially in regard of some high-tech commodities needed in space. But we have to consider that space communities, unlike terrestrial nations, have to potential to become totally autarkic in the long run, while maintaining a highly developed civilization. [On earth autarkic communities have necessarily low living standards.] Subsequently the author argues, rightly, that being at the frontier will foster and stimulate innovation, which will force space settlements to stay ahead technological.

In the next paragraph the author discusses the idea of what Nigel Calder calls “Santa Claus” machines. Personally I am a little bit sceptical about the prospects of nanotech and especially self-replicating nanobots, although I do not deny their potential usefulness for space settlements. But I do not see it happen in the coming decades, time we cannot afford to lose by waiting at them, I have the strong opinion that space settlement programs should be based on current technological knowledge and not on desired technology.

Subsequently the author discusses the culture of space settlers, and states that space settlers will adopt an “island mentality”. Which according to him is not necessarily a bad thing, given the success of Britain and Japan. Logically, in the subsequent paragraph he asks what are the characteristics of the “ideal” space settler, he questions whether there is a fundamental difference between the psychology of an explorer and that of a settler. He argues that both kinds of people are needed.

In the final paragraphs of this part the author discusses the connection between self-sufficiency and expansion. He argues that it is related to the ability of the efficient use of resources needed for self-sufficiency, which also provides the material base for expansion.

Although I did not point it out explicitly, one of the main points of this part is Bosshardt’s theorem that the isolation of space settlements will cause cultural diversity.

Part three

This part, with the title “politics as systems”, begins with a repetition of part one. The author makes in this part several points. First he argues that traditional western dispersion of power, is probable not suitable for space settlements and it can even be dangerous. Consequently he argues that countries with a collectivist tradition are possibly in an advantage. Bosshardt suggests that strong authoritarian leaders who are able to make suitable ad hoc solutions, will be more successful in managing a space settlement than their democratic colleagues.

His main argument, however, is that structure determines destiny. The success of a space settlement depends on the design of its organization, a proper institutional design is a necessary condition for survival. From part two we know that space is such a harsh environment that close cooperation is a necessity, and that any failure of this due internal conflicts, will mean the end of the settlement. Dispersion of real power in a space settlement will, of course, increase the number of potential conflicts and therefore threaten the existence of the settlement. The challenging problem is then how to reconcile the need of a strong leadership with the desire for personal liberties. The author’s suggestion is to begin with an authoritarian-corporate system which is designed to evolve to a freer system over time.

Then he discusses the rights and obligations of settlers, and he introduces the concept of limited term charter, a type of contract. And the author gives us a sample of such contract. I will discuss this idea in more dept in another post. In relation to the settler contract he also discusses the legitimacy, which is provided through the contract. This is in fact a more explicit version of the social contract. Although Bosshardt’s model is still state centered, he is right when he assumes that different space faring nations will base their settler contracts on their own legal traditions and correctly observes that English common law has no universal appeal. Personally I believe that British common law is in fact an inferior legal system, and that space settlements should adopt some kind of civil law system with its clear codified rules and procedures, provided that it is adapted to the circumstances of outer space and the wishes of the settlers.

The remainder of part three is dedicated to the concept of federation. He starts with several good points, such as that as a result of the enormous distances trans-Solar System empires and federations are highly unlikely. Any violation of central commands will remain unpunished for months, if not for years. A corollary of this would be that organizations like the united nations, will have zero influence on space settlements and that Space colonists will have almost no interest in joining such organization. Secondly he argues that due to inevitable cultural diversion, his favourite topic, among space communities will make federation implausible in case that technology manages to catch up by reducing travel time significantly. But there are some (minor) flaws in his argument, first he speaks explicitly of trans-Solar System federations, but his arguments losses some validity if we consider local federations, we can think about a federation of space settlements around Uranus or around one of the Lagrange points of the Earth-Sun system. In this case distances are much smaller, and travel and communication is a matter of days and minutes respectively. Another point of critique is that Bosshardt seems to understand the very concept of federation from an American point of view (this is not strange, given his position as a defence contractor). In US politics federalism is usually associated with concentrating power to the national government, but outside the USA federation is about sharing power between national and regional governments, about transferring responsibilities from the national government to regional governments. If reconsider local space (con-)federations, we can see that some tasks (such as “national” defence and external trade) are regulated at the federal level, while all other issues are for the states to decide upon.

Part four

In this part Mr. Bosshardt discusses the wealth of space nations. The main points are the following: first all minerals of industrial relevance are available in the Solar System, although not at every particular location in the same quantities. This will result in extensive trading between space settlements. Secondly, the inner worlds will trade metals for water-carbon-nitrogen from the outer worlds.

Because the outer world are gravitationally advantaged, the will become the main exporter of raw commodities to the inner world. Since they are farther away from the Sun, they have just to drop their trade towards the Sun (it’s easier to drop a rock to the ground, than lifting it up). Therefore the outer worlds will waste less energy for transporting goods, which will make them more competitive.

As a consequence of the importance of velocity increments in space travel Bosshardt states that Jupiter is the most strategic point of our Solar System, due to its large gravitational field. So he concludes that the (outer) moons of Jupiter have a similar importance as the Panama or Suez channel. Which means that anyone who desires to “control” the Solar System should conquer these points, a potential for future wars between (alliances of) the larger Space Nations.

As second consequence of the importance of delta-v is that locations with disadvantaged gravitational fields are the poorer ones. This because large gravity requires also large amounts of energy in order to achieve local escape velocities. And guess what is the most disadvantaged location in our Solar System? Yes, the ironic answer is Earth. (Although the gas planets have each higher escape velocities, but they have the unique advantage of holding the largest known reserves of helium 3.)

Although this part is of high quality, we have to consider that the author argues from the perspective of a “fully” developed stage of Space colonization. But in the earlier stages, space settler still need to repay the earth based investor and to trade with Earth. For a more detailed discussion of the economics of early space colonization, see here.

Part five

In this final part Bosshardts addresses several topics, although its main topic is about conflicts between space settlements. His main arguments is that the long distances between space settlements, makes conventional warfare improbable and that space settlements will use economical means such as sanctions and boycotts. I will discuss interplanetary warfare and conflicts, with combining my own expertise as a political scientist, more deeply in an upcoming post.

The second part of this instalment is irrelevant, because the cold war is over and the soviet union does not exist any longer. Furthermore the US are no longer a real space power anymore, Russia, China and India (perhaps in the near future also Iran) are the real players in this field.

Subsequently he discusses the difference in values between Earth people and Space Settlers. He correctly points out that spacers will be no more Americans, Russians etc. (in the same way that todays Americans are no more Englishmen or Germans). But further this part is mostly vague, however interesting, speculation.

The final part of this section quite irrelevant, both because it is out dated, we don’t live in 1986 any more, but more importantly it is too much state centered. It is based on the (false) assumption that the US is a leader in Space exploration, those days are over. With the fall of the Berlin wall, US space policy also lost its priority. Space settlement should, in my opinion, be done by a multinational Non-Governmental Organization, which should operate as independently as possible from current governments.