Maritime Law

Marooned on Mars: A Legal Look at Space Piracy

Tim Joyce, MJLST Staffer

Trending on the LawSciBlog’s recent foray into the intersection of law & pop culture, this week our intrepid Staffer corps fact-checks the legal accuracy of certain claims made in Andy Weir’s The Martian. With apologies to the many quality primetime law-connected dramas out there – such as How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, and The Good Wife (note all the strong female protagonists: go Hollywood!) – this is a science & technology blawg. I will thus attempt to constrain my meanderings to science-related law topics in this book/film.

You may already be familiar with the premise of Hollywood’s most recent riff on the tried and true “We must rescue Matt Damon” formula: an American astronaut with one of the first manned missions to Mars is accidentally left behind during an emergency evacuation. With only his superior botany skills and a can-do attitude, he is forced to “science the s@*t” out of his resources, MacGuyver-style, to avoid starving to death before the rescue mission arrives. Along the way he has all kinds of time alone with his thoughts, and the audience is treated to some hilarious, if occasionally profane, musings.

Author Andy Weir wrote the book as a compilation of various thought experiments he had been entertaining for years. He wanted to know what an actual manned mission to Mars might look like, and what kind of problems might pop up. Although smarter people than I have probed the book’s relative scientific accuracy (hyperlink warning: spoilers inside!), there is one short chapter that explores some legal complications of being the only colonist on an unclaimed planet. Here’s how Matt Damon’s character concludes that he is a “space pirate” (mild spoilers ahead):

  1. An international treaty says: no one can lay claim to anything not on the Earth’s surface.
  2. Another treaty says: if you’re not in any country’s territory then maritime law applies.
  3. The NASA living enclosure and rover are NASA property, and inside American non-military property American law applies.
  4. THEREFORE: Martian land is governed by maritime law; any step outside of his living enclosure or rover vehicle is a journey into “international waters.”
  5. He intends to travel across Martian soil to take control of another NASA vessel.
  6. He has not been able to communicate with NASA to get explicit permission to commandeer this other vessel. (Plot point: communication capability is a major reason he must travel to said ship.)
  7. THEREFORE: By travelling across “international waters” with the intent to commandeer an American non-military vehicle, but without explicit permission, he intends to engage in piracy.

Ergo: space pirate. (If you’re curious, this all happens in the short “Sol 381” chapter.) The character seems to think this is a pretty sweet outcome, but, is he right about the law?

By and large, the answer is yes.

Article II of the Outer Space Treaty guarantees that, “[o]uter space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” So, Mars’ surface cannot be claimed by any sovereign party to the treaty. For an exploration of the Treaty’s rationale, see “the common heritage of mankind.”

Further, Article VIII of the Treaty guarantees American jurisdiction over American objects launched into space. So, the living enclosure and rover are definitely under active American jurisdiction on Mars. By extension, anything outside those Earth-originated environments would be “international waters.”

Here’s where it gets tricky.

The other American vessel should still be under American jurisdiction. A trusting reader might assume that NASA would allow its own astronaut to commandeer its other vessel, but we all know what happens when you assume. It is at least plausible that the astronaut had not been given explicit permission to use other NASA spacecraft’s communication devices. Under Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which arguably should apply to dispute in outer space, a private person seeking to plunder a ship on the high seas commits an act of piracy. What is unclear is whether an American can be a pirate with regard to NASA property. Weir hurdles this deftly by claiming the astronaut’s botanical cultivation of Martian soil makes him a planetary colonist and the very first human Martian (hence, the book’s title).

That is basically the situation Matt Damon’s character finds himself in, more or less. Certainly, any other astronaut seeking to prevent him from taking control of the other spaceship would view him as a pirate! On the other hand, the assumption that NASA wouldn’t give advance permission for their astronauts to use other Mars-stationed property stretches the limits of believability a bit. And, even if he technically qualifies as a space pirate while travelling to the other vessel, once he gets there and asks NASA politely, he would probably lose technical pirate status.

Is any of this important?

Maybe. Though the current space race isn’t furiously driven like the furious Cold War days, space is becoming ever more crowded as more nations and even private companies enter the game. Even Andy Weir himself admits in a website Q&A that advances in technology since the 60’s make it less justifiable to risk human life to gain scientific data that robots can gather just as easily. It seems like the focus of space law, for the time being, will be a little closer to home. For an in-depth examination of some legal issues surrounding allocation of geostationary orbits, see MJLST Editor Ian Blodger’s article in the upcoming Winter 2016 issue of MJLST.
tl;dr: The legal issue of space piracy may all be just a nerdy thought experiment for the moment. If nothing else, this article should provide you with an interesting conversation starter at the holidays, and a perfect way to change the subject when your non-lawyer relatives start pontificating about the real meaning of the Second Amendment. For now: live long and prosper.