Wednesday, February 15, 2006

How to steal the planet Venus and make it your own

I came across an interesting proposal published by NASA in 2003 for colonizing Venus. While Venus is not exactly my idea of paradise, the proposal makes a reasonable case for moving there over moving to Luna or Mars. In fact, if the proposal's ideas are borne out by research and development, we could -- theoretically -- colonize planets like Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (all of which are gas giants with huge gravitional fields).

I've never really believed we could colonize these planets because they seem so inhospitable to human life. Of course, science fiction and comic book writers have implied for decades that it should be possible to alter Venus' atmospheric issues (converting all that carbon dioxide to oyxgen and neutralizing all the sulphur), add water and air to Mars, and even create substantial underground communities on Luna. The planets Jupiter and Saturn might remain off limits, but their frigid moons might be habitable (no smokers allowed on methane-drenched Titan, of course).

I cannot imagine why anyone would want to live on Titan. It's not only freezing cold there, the smell of gas makes me nauseous. Maybe some people would enjoy the eternal high, but that kind of methane exposure would cause so much brain damage you'd be back to living in the stone age in a matter of weeks (assuming you lived that long).

Mars has some nice sunsets, I'm sure, but I just don't like cold environments. I've lived on the north side of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the city of Rio Rancho. One morning I woke up to a snowstorm. I put on my fleece-lined denim jacket, dug my car out of the driveway, and drive through blizzard-like conditions to get to work. The snow was coming down so hard I passed at least a dozen vehicles (that I could see) which had simply pulled over on the side of the road to wait out the storm.

When I reached the office, the sun was shining, the air was warm, and one of my co-workers asked as I stepped out of the car why I was wearing my fleece-lined jacket. In the space of 30 minutes, I had driven from Winter to Spring (dropping about 200 feet in elevation). That just ain't the kind of life style I envision for myself and my kids. Give me Spring time all year round with maybe an occasional touch of Summer and Fall for a little variation.

On Venus, according to the NASA proposal, that might be doable.

Problem is, ain't no one planning to head to Venus any time soon. President Bush has declared that man will head out to space again, and most experts feel that we'll conquer Luna before we take on Mars. Of course, some people have already laid claim to the Earth's moon in a spectacular if unproven attempt to exploit some ambiguous wording in the 1967 United Nations Treaty On Principles Governing The Activities Of States In The Exploration And Use Of Outer Space, Including The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies.

The key portion of the treaty is Article II, which reads: "Outer 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."

The loophole, however, isn't so clear when you read Article VI: "...The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization."

Essentially, the treaty forbids non-governmental entitities (which includes you and me but apparently not Queen Elizabeth or her heirs) from taking action in space without first getting authorization from an "appropriate State Party to the Treaty". i.e., American citizens have to get permission from the United States government to set up shop on the Moon (or elsewhere). I wonder what happens to people who leave home without their permits?

Treaties are interesting things. They are not worth the paper they are written on unless someone, somewhere, is willing to put his life on the line to enforce them. International treaties have dropped by the wayside at a spectacular rate through the centuries. The oldest treaty still in force is the 1386 Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal, which renewed the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance and ensured the survival of the Portuguese monarchy through a marriage between John I of Portugal and Philippa of Lancaster (a daughter of John of Gaunt, whose descendants included the House of Lancaster from the Wars of the Roses).

Treaties are allowed to stand as long as it is convenient for all members of the treaties to keep them in force. Often enough, it only requires action by one party to invalidate a treaty. The United States, for example, has supposedly invalidated a 20th century forbidding the construction of anti-ballistic missile defenses by developing the Strategic Defense Initiative. Development of anti-ballistic missile defenses continues to this day.

International law is founded upon two principles: the recognition of sovereignty and the mutual respect of sovereignty by sovereign parties. While I realize that sovereignty is so complex an issue it can even cause an American President to stumble into foolish repetition of the word, sovereignty is easily established by any individual or group of individuals who have a piece of dirt (or something substantial) which is not claimed or otherwise controlled by a sovereign state.

And therein lies the legal loophole. The 1967 treaty forbids signatory nations from claiming sovereignty over other planets (and planet-like objects such as moons and asteroids). That means that anyone who can get to those bodies and stake their claim may have a real shot at establishing sovereignty. But it cannot legally be done over the Internet, as at least one individual is attempting. That is, you cannot legally start selling land on Mars if you've never left the Earth. You have to live on Mars before you can claim sovereignty over it in the eyes of Terrestial International Law.

There is a recent precedent for the establishment of sovereignty by individuals which has been upheld by the courts of the United Kingdom. A former military installation, located outside the claimed territorial waters of the United Kingdom, was abandoned after World War II. An enterprising Englishman seized the facility and proclaimed the Principality of Sealand. While this independent nation's sovereignty has not been acknowledged by other powers around the globe, the United Kingdom has ruled that it forfeited sovereignty over the facility through "dereliction of sovereignty".

So, where does that leave Luna, Mars, and Venus? Well, for now, it leaves them under the care of the nations who have the capability of reaching them -- all of which are currently signatories to the 1967 treaty. But the American government has authorized the development of a private space traveling industry. The industry is only in its infant stage at this point, but within a matter of decades -- provided the economics to sustain research and development develop -- the private space enterprises should have the capability of reaching Venus.

Venus cannot be claimed by any nation. If a privately owned vehicle successfully deploys a Venusian "cold air balloon" environment and established residence without the knowledge or authorization of the international community, a self-sustaining colony could conceivably claim ownership of the planet through "dereliction of sovereignty". Dereliction of sovereignty means you don't do anything to retain control over the region.

Can the signatory nations effectively retain control over Venus when private space flight makes travel to other planets outside the venue of governmental projects not only possible but achievable and worthwhile? One potential saving grace is that the 1967 treaty can be amended by the signatory nations. But they don't seem to be taking recent claims of sovereignty over Luna and Mars very seriously. If someone manages to get to Venus while everyone else is looking at Luna and Mars, odds are pretty good that a non-terrestial government not bound by the 1967 treaty will be formed.

All it takes is one determined man and the means to establish residency in a place that no government controls.

1 Comments:

Blogger boinky said...

Hmmm...the Republic of Peralandra?
Does Richard Branson know about this?

7:57 PM  

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