scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Mars needs a constitutional convention

Astrobiologist Charles Cockell explores what will prevent settlements in space from becoming breeding grounds for tyranny.

A crater on Mars, captured in 2014 by the Opportunity rover. If humans establish settlements in places like this, their liberty will depend on carefully developed technologies and political structures.HANDOUT

If humans ever get to Mars, the first of them will be a small band of explorers. As in explorations through the ages, they’d probably follow orders — whether it’s from a leader in the group or from Mission Control on Earth. But eventually, if permanent, independent settlements are ever to take root, these new branches of civilization would need a form of governance better than benign dictatorship.

The problem is that liberty isn’t easily achieved when there isn’t room to roam. If a few settlers have a dispute with their fellow inhabitants, these pioneers won’t easily set off for the next valley over yonder. People in a Mars colony would be beholden to their oxygen supplier. And given that just one bad actor in this carefully maintained indoor space could threaten everyone else’s survival, it’s likely to be under heavy surveillance. It could be the antithesis of freedom — the most managed and pre-determined space imaginable.


Fortunately, there’s time to prevent space from becoming a new outpost for tyranny. There isn’t yet a constitutional convention for Mars, but red planet aficionados and academics have been discussing space governance for many years. Among the most prominent is Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh and a director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology. He has written and edited several papers and books on the subject, including one called “Extra-Terrestrial Liberty.”

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You say people will have to “work harder to make freedom effective” on the moon or Mars. What will that work entail?

Like it is on the Earth, it’s not one particular thing. I generally think that you have to do lots of different things that you see in successful free societies — like, for example, a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.


For example: freedom of speech or freedom of press, to maximize the diversity of conversations going on. In a small society on the moon or Mars, that could even be a very informal newspaper, the Lunar Times or whatever. Voluntary association is very important. Voluntary association in anything from hobby groups to religious groups tends to diversify the number of ideas about how society should be run, other than what the state thinks. You want to encourage people to set up societies, set up institutions of their own.

This would seem to require a population above a certain size. Could it take several generations before Mars settlements achieve democracy?

I have an idea I call preemptive free governance: You set up institutions that may sound almost comical in small extraterrestrial groups. For example, the separation of powers. You could have the executive, which is like a couple of people that run the station, then you can have a legislature of two or three people who think about what general rules should apply to everyone in the habitat. And then a judiciary, which is a couple of people that are responsible for trying to implement these rules.

That would look ridiculous to anyone outside the colony, because it’s like seven or eight people trying to create three branches of government. But what you’re trying to do is instantiate the culture of freedom from a very early stage. You’re creating the institutions. And as the colony grows, the number of people that take part in those different branches can increase. If those three branches, however small they are, are not really working, then the people sitting around the table could be talking about, “How can we improve this?” You’re generating conversation about the structure of governance — something that we should be doing in all of our societies at all times.


The other thing is structural: physically fragmenting settlements. Rather than having one oxygen machine, you want to have lots of modules, all with their own oxygen-producing machines, to prevent all of those oxygen machines from being controlled by one group. Constantly try to maximize the plurality of the means of production of oxygen and food and water, so that individuals have some sort of control. This is freedom engineering: using engineering to mitigate tyranny in space.

Should we ensure from the start that the technological mechanisms exist for a settlement to have a stable and free society?

That’s a really nice way of putting it. There are things that engineers don’t think about that you might want to think about from a freedom point of view. If you try to tell an engineer, “I need some space suits for a settlement on the moon,” they’re going to work out the number of space suits that are needed to do science and to maintain the habitat. But what about if you had a lot more than that, so that people could just go out for a walk and escape the tyrannical atmosphere of that base and just get away from people? That’s about freedom of movement. Another example is having spaceships that allow you to leave the moon or Mars and come back to Earth — the freedom to escape easily if you’re not liking it.


Why should we be worrying about this now?

There are societies that are not quite as liberal, shall we say, now moving out into space and showing great space ambitions. If you want to have a dictatorial society running the whole solar system, then don’t think about liberty. But it might be a good idea that someone thinks about this and how the traditions of freedom of thought and the Enlightenment are actually taken out into the outer reaches of the solar system.

Even if in the next 200 years there’s only going to be hundreds of people on the moon and Mars, a very small number of people [in space] with tyrannical mindsets could exert a huge psychological influence on the health of free societies on the Earth. It’s very important that when you look up in the night sky you know that there are societies out there that believe in freedom, that are somehow looking after the sky.

Brian Bergstein is the deputy managing editor of Ideas. He can be reached at