One of history’s most important turning points occurred when the European powers of the 16th and 17th centuries embarked in the exploration and colonization of the newly discovered Americas. The New World offered the promise of riches for the state, freedom for the oppressed, and adventure for the brave and curious. In its untamed wilderness, new ways of life came into being and untested ideas from Europe could be put into practice. The political and social expectations of the Old World could be eschewed, and new norms established. Unique cultures emerged in the Americas out of the fusion of Old World and New World ideas and traditions. The possession of overseas empire created new forms of conflict and cooperation between states. Wealth, resources, and land conquered in America shifted and threatened the balance of power in Europe. Questions arose of who would govern the colonial populations, and how those populations would be represented. Clearly, a revolutionary new era in the history of our civilization’s development, one that offered new challenges and new opportunities, had begun.

Like with this period in human history, so too will the era of space colonization and development be one of history’s most important turning points. As was the case with the New World, outer space offers the promise of resources for spacefaring states, the opportunity of new ways of life for Earth’s disenchanted, and incredible adventure for the courageous and daring. Surely, the colonization of outer space will come with significant legal questions, such as how territorial rights and claims will be established and how sovereignty will be ensured. Just as the European powers came into conflict over their American colonies, it is entirely likely that outer space colonies will be a source of international tension between spacefaring nations. In this increasingly corporate world order, what will be the role of commercial and private space stations and colonies? Just as significant a question as how space colonies will impact the international order is how they will be governed. How, and will, the colonists be represented back on Earth? Eventually, the colonial nations of America cast off their European overlords and became their own independent countries. Might this one day happen with our colonies on other planets and other moons?

Humanity has been a spacefaring civilization for only half a century, and it may seem too early to be contemplating such scenarios as these. Yet, in these early decades of the 21st century, we see our species marching rapidly towards a more involved presence in space. The first human landings on Mars are not too long away. Already, commercial space companies are poised to radically change the way we develop space, and are set to produce the first off-world colonies. The stage is now set for this next era of colonization. Regardless of how rapidly or slowly we manage to begin it, it is inevitable that we will one day be deeply involved in it. It cannot reasonably be more than 100 to 200 years off. Though this might not seem like an immediate concern, it is of the upmost importance that we begin to consider and prepare for this inevitable future. After all, the colonization of the Americas set off a course of development which has profoundly shaped our civilization hundreds of years after the fact. As such, it is imperative that we soon establish norms and precedents for our colonization of outer space and answer those complicated legal and political questions. In doing so, we can shape this new era of human development, and those that follow, in enormously profound and influential ways. Perhaps most importantly, we could guide it in a way that best benefits our national prosperity and security.

It is here that our space policy becomes significant. In this early period of spacefaring, our approach to and use of space not only sets precedent, but will provide the foundation from which we will conduct our future space activities. We must develop a coherent and conclusive roadmap to how we will establish ourselves in outer space and devote the resources and energy needed to develop it. Unfortunately, today the United States’ national space effort, conducted through the auspices of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is adrift and severely underfunded. With a national space effort not a political or popular priority, commercial firms are instead beginning to develop the space industry. Though this is in part a natural development of our colonial efforts – after all, commercial organizations arguably played as significant role in the colonization of the Americas as national governments – the presence of commercial habitats in space without any oversight or regulation could be a source of significant concern. Under whose jurisdiction will they be subject? Will they possess their own sovereignty or be under the sovereignty of their point of origin? Again, these are the complicated legal questions that must be answered. As the commercial sector appears more and more poised to surpass the state in conducting space activity, it is imperative that those answers be developed in a space policy sooner than later.

It is possible to let this process of colonization develop organically, without some precedents and guidelines to direct it. We could establish ourselves in space without any long-term strategic planning. Yet such an approach would be of much less benefit to us than one which is conducted with specific goals in mind and with specific norms to be established. Right now, humanity is getting poised to begin in full its next era of colonization. It is not too long off until we will be fully involved in a space effort, and fully committed to establishing and spreading ourselves through the solar system. Right now is the time when we can be most effective and influential in determining how this next era will proceed. Right now is the time when we must be developing a larger strategic roadmap, considering and answering the legal questions associated with space colonization, and committing ourselves more seriously to our space effort.

We must also begin to consider how our activity and the activity of other countries in space will influence the future international order. Just like the case with the colonization of the New World, the establishment, development, and acquisition of new space colonies could come to influence the way countries back on Earth perceive and deal with each other. Obviously, the establishment of a presence in space will shift the balance of power between competing nations, and could very well become a security concern. As the “Space Race” of the Cold War readily demonstrated, countries could potentially become fiercely invested in a competition for prestige and, now with the coming era of colonization, a presence in space. Whether this competition will breed tensions or cooperation will be determined by the norms we establish in the coming years. There is a bright possibility for cooperation in space activities, and with it a corresponding easing of relations back on Earth. The “Apollo-Soyuz Test Project” of 1975, coming at the height of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, demonstrated that joint-space activities can provide a powerful source of unity between rivaling nations. The multilateral establishment of the International Space Station showed that any major effort in space will require international cooperation and coordination, and from this closer ties between nations can be formed. In the coming years of space colonization and exploration, when we will be forced to look to other countries for the resources and expertise needed to fully establish ourselves in space, international cooperation will be a necessity. Yet, in the present day, relations with the major spacefaring countries of China and Russia, our most significant potential space partners, are worsening. The United States and China have no precedent of space cooperation. We must address our relations with the other spacefaring nations of the world as soon as possible, keeping into consideration the necessity for cooperation and the benefits such cooperation will bring. If we hope to begin this next era in space sooner than later, and establish beneficial precedents for the future, this cooperation must start happening now.

We must also consider how the colonists of the future, living in space stations or in colonies on other worlds, will come to interact with their home country, and how we will incorporate such colonists into our political system. Issues of representation will undoubtedly be raised, as had been the case in the last colonial experience. Will the space colonists have the same rights and privileges as their brethren on Earth, and will the state have the same expectations and demands of them? Governments will surely develop in these colonies when they reach a sizable population; what sort of system will these governments be modeled after, and will they be accountable to the parent country? How will we deal with colonial dissatisfaction, unrest, and even independence – all of which, if history has taught us anything, are distinct possibilities? Though there is still a considerable amount of time to be had until we have established, self-sustaining space colonies, the questions of how to deal with them should begin to be considered now. We have clear historical evidence of how the colonial process is tricky, can lead to conflict between colonist and parent country, and even breed the creation of a new nation and state. We must not commit ourselves to an effort in space without studying this history and applying its lessons to this new era of colonization. As with everything else involving our space policy, the sooner we begin this, the more prepared we will be.

Our species is soon embarking on its next major era of colonization and development, one which will spread us deep into the vast expanse that is the cosmos. This process will transform our civilization in profound ways, just as the colonization of the New World set into motion the course of events that have produced the world we live in today. Yet, unlike the colonial powers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, we are armed with a historical hindsight which provides us with lessons in caution about the potential issues our activities may bring. We are armed with the knowledge, coming from half a century of spacefaring experience, of how space activity may foster interstate cooperation and competition. We are armed with the knowledge of how a new frontier offers the possibility for riches, freedoms, and adventure. We have the foresight and capacity needed to create a roadmap, a comprehensive policy, for how we as a nation will involve ourselves in space. It is of the utmost importance that we begin to develop and implement this policy as soon as possible. How the entirety of humanity’s future plays out will be its result.