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Mars Trip May Be One for the Law Books

by Bruce Haring

A Netherlands non-profit plans to send 40 men and women on a one-way trip to Mars. To date, they have received over 200,000 applications for a seat.

The Mars One Project has already whittled down its applications to about 1,000 people. The group plans unmanned missions as early as 2016, followed by a human mission in 2022, or roughly eight years before NASA has a similar launch scheduled.

Mars One is trying to raise $6 billion for the project through marketing and broadcasting rights. Its web site now hawks merchandise touting the trip.

Leaving aside the questions about whether the launch ever takes place, the prospect raises some interesting legal questions. After all, the people on board the ship are effectively exiling themselves from the planet, an unprecedented journey that will put them beyond the reach of any human interference.

How will they govern themselves?  Will it be a socialist or a capitalist society? What will the social roles of men and women be like?

There are more questions than answers at this point, so we asked Los Angeles attorney Pamela Koslyn for her take.

RED TEA NEWS: What if someone owes debts on earth?

KOSLYN:  Their creditor would find it impossible to serve them with process, and no debtor going to Mars would be concerned about their credit rating  or anyone chasing them for debts.

RTN:  What are the obligations of someone who is married?

KOSLYN:  I guess their spouse would be considered “unavailable” for most purposes, like if they were required to be a witness in court. If their spouse’s signature was required for anything, like,  say, signing over jointly owned real estate, they’d be very wise to get a power of attorney from the Mars-going spouse before they left. If the Mars-going spouse died in their effort, for things like collecting life insurance benefits (assuming the insurer didn’t consider this a suicide and refuse to pay a benefit), the surviving spouse would need to get a court to declare them dead.

RTN:  Are they beyond any country’s laws on Mars, since it’s not anyone’s planet?

KOSLYN:  I expect so.

RTN:  Can the company that sent them there be held liable for any debts or other issues that arise?

KOSLYN:  I doubt it. For the newly minted astronaut’s pre-existing debts, I see no basis for holding the “travel” company liable for their debts. The travel company’s contract would expressly state that the astronaut would assume all risks of this interplanetary travel, and this “travel” would be so broadly defined that it would no doubt include anything that happens or doesn’t happen to the astronaut from the minute they start their training. The company would also disclaim anything related to the fact that Mars time is measured differently than time on Earth. And we know about time being different. There are so many known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, that the disclosure and disclaimers of the contract between astronaut and travel company would be ridiculously long and detailed.

For the astronaut’s part, once they qualify for this trip, I don’t know if or how they could guarantee anything about how they’d behave at any stage. That doesn’t mean that the travel company wouldn’t try to get them to commit to things, but like any “personal services” contract, like the kind used for artistic performers, you can’t make someone perform.  No matter how strict the law is and no matter what a judge is prepared to order, all you can do is provide for money damages, and in this case, money does no one any good.  Either the astronaut/performer wants to and is able to perform, or they’re not.

RTN:  Is it possible that you can prevent someone from going, on the grounds that consenting to this mission amounts to a suicidal urge, which can indicate mental illness?

KOSLYN: I don’t think so. As things are now, people can testify in court under oath that they’re telling the truth that they believe in a God, and that God speaks to them. Apparently hearing God’s voice or seeing religious visions doesn’t get you considered mentally ill, but just ask an atheist how competent anyone sounds if they swear to these things. I note that mental competence was an issue with the Mormon defendants who committed murder in Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven.

I’d assume that a new colony would need a Constitution, or some kind of system of civil and criminal laws to run itself, since when you’ve got humans, you’re eventually going to get civil disputes (will there be private real and personal and intellectual property? I suppose the idea is that there will be marriages and divorces and kids.  There will be employment, and contracts, and accidents. . . ) and criminal issues (all of ’em).  It would be interesting to contemplate how it would work. Would some member of this new colony be put in charge?  If so, it should be a lawyer!

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