See all articles

The Narratives of Space Exploration

A Response to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) - Part II


Human space exploration has been part of the social and political consciousness since Dr. Werner von Braun published his seminal guidebook for a human settlement of Mars. The possibility of human settlement in space, has also prompted the consideration of parallels between the narratives of space exploration and colonization. These parallels include simple phrases such as ‘colonization’ and ‘frontier’ that are related to the concepts of the doctrine of discovery, and terra nullius. These parallels are well understood in popular culture and science fiction. Indeed, as and further, since the beginning of the space race, the drafters of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), to which Canada is a party, agreed that ‘colonization’ or the possibility of a ‘land grab’ in outer space, was to be avoided. For this reason, outer space became a ‘global commons’.

The first issue is our choice of words with respect to space exploration. The words typically chosen, such as colonization, are exclusive to peoples who have a lived experience of the negative impacts of colonization. These histories have been well documented in scholarship on Canada’s history in relation to the First Nations and are beyond the scope of our commentary. However, we stress that focusing on the ideas of ‘frontiers’ or ‘colonization’, when discussing the human presence in outer space echoes the remnants of this history and excludes Indigenous peoples from participating in the goal of space exploration.

One counterargument to such concerns could be that human exploration in space will not impact ‘life’ as there is no ‘life’ as we know it on the Moon and that, most likely, there is no life on Mars. Responses to this are as follows:

  1. First, this definition of ‘life’ is rooted in dominant ontologies and a particular understanding of physical entities having biological processes and being different from inorganic matter. However, many Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world have different perspectives of life and being. For many peoples, there is a kinship relation between humans and nature, humans and the land, and humans and celestial objects such as the planets, Moon, stars, and the Sun, as well as the Universe. This is an axiom of relationality that places Indigenous peoples as equal to and not above any other element in nature.
  2. Second, the argument that outer space and space objects are ‘empty’ is a space-based transposition of the terra nullius (Latin: nobody’s land) or res nullius (nobody’s thing) principles in international law (or the early law among the nations). Terra Nullius and the doctrine of discovery are principles developed by colonizing European Nations, and philosophies and laws, which declare territories as empty and avoid recognition of the existence of Indigenous peoples. For instance, both the idea that Indigenous peoples’ land was empty land and the doctrine of discovery, are exemplified in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which declared that only non-Christian lands could be colonized under the doctrine of discovery. In the nineteenth century, the famous 1823 US Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh 1823 affirmed the doctrine of discovery as part of international law.

By declaring Indigenous peoples as not civilized and often as not ‘human’ – and therefore, not as subjects of law, the doctrine of discovery of terra nullius allowed European nations to claim territory through colonialism and erase the connections between Indigenous peoples and the lands on which they lived on. Terra Nullius impacted humans in what came to be sovereign Canada, as well as bison, wolves, bears, cod, salmon, great auk, and so on. It is arguable that Terra Nullius negatively impacted indigenous land rights, through dam building, water and air pollution, and so on. We do not know what the impact of Martian Nullius is or will be, and our narratives and discussions must be inclusive of these issues from the perspective of Indigenous knowledges and ontologies, in Canada.

Satellite Constellations as Colonization

The launch of Starlink by SpaceX has had a dramatic and damaging impact on research in astronomy and astrophysics (Clery 2020, Kocifaj 2021). These satellites have added to the amount of light pollution, and future satellite constellations could have far greater impact depending on the legal requirements and the purpose of those satellites.

Hamacher et al (2020) presented a compelling argument that light pollution is a form of cultural genocide (please note that in the context of the Final Report of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission we will use the term Indigenous erasure instead). In their article, the authors noted that a significant amount of Indigenous knowledge is based on star lore and observations of the sky. Those observations are connected to Indigenous stories about the land and nature – for some peoples the sky is a reflection of the land. Those observations, however, are based on a dark night sky without substantive light pollution. As such, light pollution acts to disconnect Indigenous peoples from the land they live, and as such, is a form of erasure. In the same vein, we argue that constellations of satellites are also a form of colonization, especially those that are bright enough to be visible from the ground. If light pollution results in an erasure of knowledges, then mega constellations of satellites would also constitute an attempt to rewrite that knowledge.

At which ‘height’, do treaties and agreements with Indigenous peoples end? It is understood that treaties have impact on Indigenous rights and responsibilities with respect to mining, water resources, hunting, etc. but Indigenous communities should be consulted with the impacts on the skies above. This is especially true for satellites that contribute to light pollution, but also satellites that are designed to offer services to communities (such as wireless internet), satellites designed for ground-based or remote imaging such as mapping satellites and LIDAR imaging. The CSA has an obligation to consult with Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led organizations with respect to the legalities of how satellites that impact communities operate.

Preserving the Moon and Mars: What is the Future?

One of the key elements of the Artemis Accords is the commitment to preserve Outer Space Heritage (Section 9). On the other hand, Sections 3 and 10 of the Accords are designed to allow countries to peacefully exploit the Moon and Mars. However, these accords presuppose that Space Heritage refers to only landing sites and rovers. This definition ignores Indigenous people’s perspectives and elements of space heritage for Indigenous cultures.

It is also notable that the accords allow for exploitation by humanity for industry such as mining. This idea implies that nation-states on Earth have the right to exploit the Moon and Mars for their own purposes and those rights supersede the principle that the Moon and Mars might have their own rights as viewed from Indigenous perspectives. In Aotearoa (New Zealand), the settler government recognized that the Whanganui River is a living entity that belonged to no one, hence has its own rights as a living entity. This means that the river cannot be exploited by humans. Because the river cannot express its own interests in ways that humans can interpret, a committee was appointed to act as guardian for the river. That committee includes local Maori representatives.

In lieu of a conclusion we offer a brief comment on the relationship between indigenous cultures and outer space. Importantly, this is not meant to be an all-encompassing representation of all ontologies, whether indigenous or of other populations (depending on how they self-identify). The importance of the Moon and Mars as part of the cultures and knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples from around the world and that part for many peoples is one of relation. In the situation of relationality, the Moon and Mars and other Solar System objects have their own rights to exist. Those rights are not necessarily incongruent with exploration and mining. However, they do require a significant reconsideration of what constitutes a human right to interact with the Moon and Mars. For instance, the environmental impact on the Earth is significant but the Earth could heal from most mining events given enough time. It is not likely the Moon would recover over the age of the Universe because of the lack of dynamic mechanisms found on the Earth. We have an ethical duty to consider the rights of the Moon and Mars from environmental and Indigenous perspectives to better share the benefits and sustainability of space exploration. Those rights should be represented by Indigenous peoples as well as traditional nation-state governance.


Part I of this text can be found here.

Hilding Neilson

Hilding Neilson is a researcher at the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto.

View profile
Elena Cirkovic

Elena Cirkovic is a researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), Helsinki University; a Research Affiliate at MIT Media Lab, Space Enabled Project; and a Fellow at the Law and Theory Lab, University of Westminster.

View profile
Print article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Submit your Contribution
We welcome contributions on all topics relating to international law and international legal thought. You can send us your text, or get in touch with a preliminary inquiry at:
Subscribe to the Blog
Subscribe to stay informed via e-mail about new posts published on Völkerrechtsblog and enter your e-mail address below.