Apr 13, 2021 - Science

The push to define workers' rights in space

Illustration of an astronaut's fist against a space background.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As humanity stretches into orbit and beyond, experts are still grappling with how rights afforded to workers on Earth apply to those living in space.

Why it matters: In order to create businesses and perhaps societies in space — where the biological necessities for sustaining human life, like air and water, aren't readily available — there will need to be fundamental rights agreements to guarantee laborers aren't exploited.

  • Translating human rights to professional astronauts and other spaceflyers isn't necessarily straightforward. Experts say the international community needs to start grappling with that now, decades before we have a city on Mars.
  • How would the right to free expression work practically for a mistreated worker aboard a private space station where a company supplies air and life support?
  • "In space, we have an opportunity to create a new, holistic system from the very beginning and that includes labor protections, that includes political protections... that includes protections for accessibility to resources and oxygen and water," AJ Link, a research director with Jus Ad Astra, an organization focused on human rights in space, told Axios.

What's happening: The UN's Outer Space Treaty classifies astronauts as a protected group that should be considered emissaries of humanity with rights and protections.

  • But rules around the rights of private astronauts in space aren't clearly defined in the treaty, and that could complicate things as more companies work to send private citizens to space.
  • In theory, nations licensing the launches of companies like SpaceX are responsible for what those businesses do in space, meaning that people sent to orbit and beyond will be protected by those nations, but that hasn't been put to the test on a wide scale yet.

The intrigue: While defining what rights a laborer has off-Earth may seem premature today, experts say that decisions made now will influence what rights look like in orbit for decades to come.

  • Jeff Bezos has detailed his vision of large, private space stations in orbit that will serve as manufacturing hubs for industry, keeping that kind of polluting work off of the planet.
  • Elon Musk's SpaceX has already made the broad (and unsupported) claim that Mars is a "free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities" as part of its Starlink beta test agreement.
  • "It’s not hard to imagine a 'company town' scenario where employers can wield incredible leverage over workers by controlling almost every aspect of their existence," Ed Finn, founding director at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, told Axios. "Staging a walk-out is tricky when the only place to go is the pitiless void on the other side of the airlock."

The big picture: "One challenge I see facing private space exploration is that the leaders of space exploration companies will set the objectives, rules, and sanctions that govern space habitations and missions, likely with profit maximization as the goal," David Colby Reed, graduate researcher in the Space Enabled research group at the MIT Media Lab, told Axios.

  • "This is business-as-usual on Earth, but, in space, such private government becomes totalizing."
  • That control over both everyday life and work could create a situation where "it's difficult for a free society of equals to take root," Reed added.

The bottom line: Sending people to space for the long haul will require tough conversations today about what rights they'll have in space and how they will be enforced hundreds to millions of miles from Earth.

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