A million inhabitants live in the city under the soft pink sky of Mars, just a century after the first robotic probes from Earth visited the Red Planet. They farm and labor in habitats that shield them from dust and harsh ultraviolet radiation.
Promoted as a society unshackled from earthly laws, this town is in fact as unfree as possible. The company rules everything, owning not only the buildings but the water and air people need to survive. If a person took out a loan to pay for passage, the company effectively holds them in indentured servitude. Human rights are not a given, nor is bodily autonomy.
Thankfully, this dystopia isn’t inevitable. However, some of the world’s most powerful men believe it’s part of humanity’s multiplanetary future, and as leaders of the private space industry they have the potential to realize much of the vision. For years, SpaceX chief Elon Musk has pushed claims that he will resettle a million people on Mars by 2050 using a thousand rockets built by his company, with the first settlers arriving by the end of this decade. Even sooner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket company is plotting to build an “office park” in low-Earth orbit in the next five years called the Orbital Reef. His ultimate vision, however, is trillions of people in space colony canisters, to produce “1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins,” in his questionable phrasing, in coming centuries.
NASA has now granted contracts to both Bezos and Musk to build landing craft that will carry astronauts to the moon in this decade to help build a planned lunar base. Given their grim vision for humanity’s off-world tomorrows, we should dread plutocrats controlling any aspect of our future.
Of course, space exploration has never been wholly innocent. The “space race” of the 1960s, including the Apollo program, largely aimed at triumphing over the Soviet Union. The space shuttle carried out military missions. NASA’s current Artemis agenda—particularly as originally formulated under the Trump administration—is as much about reasserting American superiority in space, and providing access for private companies to the moon’s natural resources, as it is about advancing science.
For Musk, other planets seem like an opportunity to leave laws behind. “For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities,” says SpaceX’s satellite Internet Starlink company, in its terms of service. That language is revealing: First, Starlink doesn’t serve Mars yet and may never, but more importantly the statement is not true—all activity on other worlds is governed by an appropriate nation, in accordance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, any Earth-bound government would have difficulty enforcing laws on a permanent Mars settlement, where the only recourse might be stopping supply missions, a drastic measure that could kill the entire colony. Even sanctioning the company back home wouldn’t stop problems on another planet, especially if SpaceX owns the rockets to get there.
Musk and his companies don’t have the greatest track record following the law on Earth, which doesn’t speak well to how he would govern a Mars colony. His Martian employees can look forward to “burning the 3 A.M. oil, they won’t even leave the factory,” a regimen for which he has lauded Chinese workers; Musk has demanded intensive workweeks from Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter employees, at least one of whom (later fired) tweeted about sleeping on her office floor. He also has used Mars settlement as an example of why he’s concerned about declining birthrates (a fixation of white supremacists for more than a century). That’s all troubling because Musk’s companies SpaceX and Tesla have faced scrutiny over allegations of racial and sexual harassment, and of multiple safety violations. SpaceX also reportedly paid an employee a settlement after she reported Musk offering a horse in exchange for sexual favors. Since Musk took the reins at Twitter, the social media platform has stepped up censorship on behalf of regimes including Turkey and India, and welcomed white supremacists back, while the new owner himself praised brutal historical dictators and spread antisemitic memes. These behaviors are troubling enough in a CEO, but they’re alarming in the leader of a space colony.
Tech billionaires in general appear fond of writing their own rules while rejecting others’ legal authority, and Bezos is no exception. His Blue Origin rocket firm, as mentioned, also won a contract from NASA to construct the lunar lander for the Artemis project, which in addition to establishing a permanent human presence will open the moon to mining. Slated as a private replacement for the International Space Station, one of Orbital Reef’s perks is its freedom from government oversight, which in light of the many labor issues at Amazon should give anyone pause.
To put it bluntly: if our space overlords behave this way on Earth with governments looking over their shoulders, how will they behave off-world with little possibility of oversight or redress? Even returning to Earth from Mars might be technically impossible. Trusting your life to private space companies is a big gamble, not least since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in May signed a bill shielding SpaceX and other companies from liability from death or injury incurred from spaceflight.
One of the earliest popularizations of orbiting space habitats and Mars colonies came from the engineer Wernher von Braun, whose personal history should make us cautious about space visionaries. He arrived in the United States in secret, smuggled by the U.S. government to build rockets as he had for his previous employer: the Nazi regime, which he served as a member of the party and a high-ranking officer in the SS. During World War II, he oversaw the construction of the V-2 missiles that bombarded England. While he personally claimed to be apolitical, more people died in the forced-labor camps building the rockets than in the bombardments.
Musk and Bezos don’t serve a fascist regime, but like von Braun, their visions are rooted in 20th-century colonialism, resource extraction and disregard for labor rights. Martian company towns off-world won’t be the libertarian paradise promised by our tech billionaires.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.