Space City

SpaceX Mars city: What Musk's ‘free planet’ declaration really means

Eric Berger's book, Liftoff, chronicles the rise of SpaceX. It could also give hints about the future.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to go to Mars — and according to a recent set of terms and conditions, he may also want it to be a "free planet."

In a book released this week, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, Ars Technica senior space editor Eric Berger covered the firm's early days as it tried to send a rocket to orbit, establish itself as a space company and stop hemorrhaging cash. Musk pushed the team as it tried to launch the Falcon 1 rocket from Omelek Island, part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

“He works very hard, and he expects those people around him to work very hard,” Berger tells Inverse. "He never really lets up."

That determination could explain a rather perplexing document released in October 2020.

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SpaceX is currently developing the Starship, a stainless steel rocket designed to send humans to Mars. The goal is to send the first humans by the mid-2020s, establishing a city on the planet by 2050. On a test flight this week, the Starship successfully launched a few miles into the air and came back down, eventually nailing a landing — but exploding a few minutes later.

A SpaceX Starlink satellite dish. Customers use the dish to connect to the service provided through the satellite constellation.SpaceX

The firm has also been developing Starlink, a high-speed internet service that uses a large constellation of satellites. In October 2020, beta testers of the nascent service noted an unusual passage in section nine:

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

David Koplow, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, told Inverse in November 2020 that terms like “free planet” are “just gibberish,” as far as international law is concerned. Agreements like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty cover activities in space, rather than the Starlink terms of service.

For a science fiction fan like Musk, it could just be an easter egg. But Berger suggests it would be wrong to dismiss the terms outright. Musk, Berger explains, is someone that makes bold statements that are more serious than they first appear. The above terms could be more important than they appear.

“When he thinks he's right, he thinks he's right, and he's going to charge ahead,” Berger says. “It's definitely a near-term issue and controversy. I think the terms of service were one of the first shots fired in that.”

The terms of service are just the beginning of how SpaceX's Mars city is quietly taking shape.

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