The Elysium Effect: Space Law and Commercial Space Disparities

By Savannah Mandel 

Have you ever seen Elysium? It’s a 2013 science fiction movie directed by Neill Blomkamp about a future Earth where the elitist upper echelon of the wealthy live on a utopian space station called Elysium, while the inhabitants of Earth live in impoverished squalor. Named after the Elysian Fields, an ancient Greek conception of the afterlife, Elysium is a rotating space station home to the thousands of residents that make up the 1% of humans able to live a life away from Earth.

At the time I first watched the film, I didn’t take the prospect of such a world seriously. It was beautifully imagined, and engrossing in all the most disturbing ways, but I deemed it an ultimately implausible future. Although I am a huge fan of Blomkamp and know full well that his films are inspired by his own experiences growing up in the real-world dystopia of Johannesburg, South Africa—where townships and economic disparities still run rampant—my innate optimistic naivete overruled my knowledge of real-world truths. Perhaps it was blind hope that my generation, and my children’s generation, could not possibly cause enough ecological damage to create such a dystopian gap between the elite and the impoverished. That’s just not our Earth. Right?… right? Even if a radical division of the wealthy and poor (to such an extent as portrayed in Elysium) could happen, there’s a reason the movie was set 136 years into the future—a lot of global and political change would need to occur to result in such a drastically transformed (or perhaps deteriorated) world.

After conducting fieldwork for my master’s degree with a leading Commercial Space Company, I’m not so sure about the improbability of such a reality anymore. Through a conversation with a commercial space lawyer at my fieldsite, who, for the sake of privacy I’ll call Amelia, a reality which previously seemed unlikely, now appears to be a probable outcome of the expansion of commercial space industries. When I refer to commercial space industries, I mean industries of many types and with many specializations, such as space tourism, satellite development, resource extraction, that interact with space as a privately-owned environment. What began as a discussion of the five space treaties—The Outer Space Treaty (1967), The Rescue Agreement (1968), The Liability Convention (1972), The Registration Convention (1975), and The Moon Agreement (1979)—during my anthropological fieldwork, developed into a conversation about a near-future, potential broadening of global wealth disparities between “first world” and “third world” countries.  A growing disparity that I fear will result in an “Elysium Effect.” The following blog post is a thought piece on just one possible social reality that could arise from an explosion of the commercial space industry.

This reality (or way of life) could, based on Ray Kurzweil’s research on “the Singularity” (2005), occur much sooner than previously predicted. Kurzweil’s work depicts an acceleration of technology that will rapidly result in the superior intelligence of machines, something he predicts will then develop at a rate so exponential that it will lead to the merging of machine and man. Based on the growth rate of technological advancement during the 19th and 20th centuries, he believes that “the singularity” (this moment of technological explosion) is indeed near and potentially only 30 years away. This looming technological explosion would incline me to believe that such a rapid expansion of the commercial space industry could indeed be possible within our century or even the next couple of decades.

But what do I mean by “Elysium Effect”? Let’s back track to my conversation with Amelia. At first, our conversation focused on the rumors surrounding the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, specifically on its potential for change after the past twenty years of commercial space industry expansion. The Outer Space Treaty, and the aforementioned space treaties, were all results of the progressive space race that occurred throughout the 1950s and 1980s. They were the legal results and preventative measures taken to cover many of the issues that arose through exploration of this new and dangerous cosmic environment—including, but not limited to, the care and recovery of astronauts and their corresponding return capsules, outer space resource management, and conflicts over the ownership of near Earth objects, or planetary bodies. The Outer Space Treaty specifically provided the initial and most basic framework for international space law by laying out the most basic and inherent rights to all extraterrestrial materials. The Moon Agreement follows up on provisions instilled in the Outer Space Treaty. It emphasizes that the moon and other celestial bodies should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes without damage to the environment. But the Moon Agreement was not signed or agreed upon by any countries with actual launch capabilities.

Amelia believed that the potential restructuring (or editing) of these treaties in the future is unlikely to occur, detailing the specific historical context that was necessary for the five space treaties to initially gain global (or at least US and USSR) consensus around the treaties when they were first written:

In the 60s and 70s, really in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, there was constant tension between two space powers—the US and the USSR. It was because of this tension that negotiations were possible in order to set the foundation for rules and legislation. Because that tension existed and because there were so few other space players at the time (there were really only two at the time) and they were able to have their wish lists accounted for, they were able to hammer out basic rules, and the fundamental rules by which everyone would eventually play throughout the space race.

But things have changed since the first space race (1957-1975), as Amelia and my current fieldwork constantly emphasize. As we enter what many of my research informants are calling a “second space era,” we are faced with new laws, new rules. We are no longer dealing with two diametrically opposed powers, the United States and Russia. The nature of competition and the commercial space market has drastically changed. As Amelia explains,

Now, there are probably 20 space powers that have true ability to do things in space, maybe 10 that have their own launch capabilities, and they have their own interests, their own geopolitical interests. Most of them are not willing to back one or another. They want to have their own interests represented in a given treaty and, because of that, there is going to be high reluctance of anyone in the UN allowing the space treaty to be updated or amended because once you open it up to that possibility, some of the other hard-fought provisions could be up for grabs. And most people on any given side are afraid that one of their pet provisions may then be subject to erosion.

Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to pass through the Solar System

What was once a diametrically-based race to space between two countries in the midst of a Cold War, is now an inclusive industry that is both expansive and expanding. These “interests” Amelia describes are largely commercial. Some of these goals include resource acquisition, research development, and outer space tourism. Our conversation about competing space interests turned to a familiar topic: outer space resource extraction (this can include anything from mining asteroids, to harvesting ice off Martian or lunar ice caps). Fellow cosmic anthropologist, Dr. Valerie Olson, discussed this concept in depth in her article Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid activism and the making of an environmental solar system (2012). Her work focuses on similar concepts discussing how, “in a post-Cold War context, aerospace and astronautics practices and policies are becoming more comprehensively attached to national and international environmental politics. This is evident in the emergence of a dual identity for Near Earth Objects; they are astronomical as well as environmental objects that are considered to be threats as well as exploitable natural resources” (2012). Near Earth Objects are a prime example of potential zones of outer space resource extraction. In fact, one commercial space company, Planetary Resources, plans on being at the forefront of commercial asteroid mining projects. I wonder if the boom in commercial space industries, in line with resource extraction, might also have a dual identity, or in this case, more accurately, dual influence in the creation of an Elysium Effect.

One can imagine the positive and progressive impacts such space resources could provide to Earth, while at the same time considering the possibility of engendering a negative, more Elysium-type Effect. As Amelia goes on to detail,

There are so many legal provisions that are implicated in resource extraction and in determining what private property rights there are to do such a thing. There’s a great argument, between the US and many many other countries, on who should have the right to go out and mine those outer space materials, whatever they may be. An argument that those materials should be the property of all states and countries. Of course, the people who put up the money and the risk to go out and do it believe that those resources are there for the taking, and you can read provisions in the Moon Agreement to support that reading and interpretation. Others disagree with it violently. So, if the Outer Space Treaty were to be re-negotiated today, everyone would be fighting over how the provisions should read. There would be no agreement.

Amelia’s explanation about the legal provisions implicated in resource extraction provides the historical and legal foundation for the conclusion I come to. It takes extreme wealth and more than that—privilege—to be able to even make it into space, let alone mine those space resources. Although there are more “players” in the space race today than there were twenty years ago, many developing countries are still excluded from participating due to division in wealth and technological innovation. In response to Amelia’s comments about the commercial prospects of celestial bodies, I insinuate that outer space bodies cannot be owned, attempting to point us in the direction of one of the Outer Space Treaty’s most controversial issues—outer space resource ownership. But, Amelia corrects me, explaining one of the most common ambiguities expressed in The Outer Space Treaty:

The Outer Space Treaty says that no nation can have sovereign control over celestial bodies, but that needs to be read in context with the Moon Agreement. The US interpretation of the Moon Agreement… specifically, article 11, paragraph 3 says natural resources in place shall be considered no sovereign nation’s property, but… once they are out of place—that is, once they are dug up, they become the property of whoever dug them up.

Although the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement include specific stipulations of ownership over resources from other planets, there are ways in which nations can technically claim domain through the use of legal loopholes. As the commercial space industry advances, it is becoming easier and easier to argue against these treaties, because of the ambiguity in which many of the major articles were written. There are strong positions against the ambiguity Amelia describes.

Many other countries, developing countries especially believe that anything that comes from an outer space body or asteroid or planet or moon should be the property of all states or nations. And that’s the disagreement.

Unfortunately, the people that really have a dog in that fight [over the ownership of natural resources] are those countries that do not have the technological abilities to get to space, to access those resources. And in their view, the spacefaring states might take all the good stuff before they are able to get to it, and that doesn’t seem fair. Because although they may have the right to access such resources doesn’t mean they have the ability to.

Given Amelia’s argument about space access and accessibility, I’m reminded of Elysium, of a world divided—two different paths taken by Earthlings, one utopian and one dystopian. I should note that this image of such a world is founded more on the inhabitation of space rather than purely the hogging of resources. But this sort of resulting wealth disparity, and the misuse of not just outer space resources, but also resources from our own planet, is a theme that’s constant across science fiction and fantasy. Take for instance Kim Stanley Robinson’s eco-science fiction, such as Aurora (2015) or 2312 (2012). The majority of his novels describe this sort of divided human future, one where Earth has been left behind and the elite that could escape, did.

So, I asked Amelia, “Do you think if this uneven distribution of outer space resources occurs, and we have these issues, will it ultimately broaden the global wealth gap between first world and third world countries?” But, I’ll be honest, now I’m asking this question to you, my fellow science and technology anthropologists. Amelia’s answer was simple: it might. My answer is nervous: this reality is a consequence that’s too easy to visualize. The political and economic-post-apocalyptic possibility of an Elysium-esque world, a prediction of massively broadened global wealth disparities, is all too realistic—a possible and unaccounted for economic and social result of commercial space exploration and outer space resource manipulation. Does this mean we shouldn’t mine asteroids or attempt multi-planetary habitation? In my opinion, no. The expansion of commercial space industries has many benefits to global development, technological advancement, and international relations. For instance, the current competition between many start-up commercial space organizations (such as Cesaroni Aerospace vs. Aerotech, Blue Origins vs. Virgin Galactic), with or without success, pushes technological innovation and development. In a similar way, competition between the US and USSR helped both countries advance scientifically and industrially, leading both countries into the new frontier of space. That being said, as a cosmic anthropologist AND a social anthropologist, I argue that the powerful economic and political potential for change this commercial expansion can and will have is something we should start accounting for.

Savannah Mandel is a MSc student at University College London finishing a degree in Social Anthropology. Her research is on the anthropology of human space exploration, with fieldwork recently conducted with one of America’s major space coorporations. Her blog posts for The Geek Anthropologist  have been inspired by technoscapes, material culture, and a deep love of all things cosmic. In her spare time she is an active member of the UCL Sci-Fi/Fantasy Society and writes novels as well as short stories. Her serialized Sci-Fi novel, Moon Monogamy is published here at TGA. Some of her other publications on related topics include; Ghosts in the Machine: On Losing Control to the Technoscape (2018), To Infinity: Cosmic Anthropology and Science Fiction in Ethnography (2018), and science fiction short story Children of God (2018). If you have any questions or comments you’re welcome to contact her at

Works Cited

The header image is Retro Space Illustration by Chaw

Blomkamp, Neill (2013). Elysium. Film. TriStar Pictures.

Clark, Colin (2017). “CSIS On The Second Space Age: ‘Diverse, Disruptive, Disordered And Dangerous’.” Breaking Defense. 

Genovese, Taylor R. (2016). “Fear and Loathing in Truth or Consequences: Neoliberalism, Colonialism, and the Lineage of the Frontier at Spaceport America.” Space + Anthropology.

Kurzweil, Ray (2005). The Singularity is Near. New York City: Viking Press.

Olson, Valerie (2012). Political Ecology in the Extreme: Asteroid activism and the making of an environmental solar system. Anthropological Quarterly Vol. 85, No. 4 Special Edition

Robinson, Kim Stanley (2012). 2312. New York: Orbit Publications.

Robinson, Kim Stanley (2015). Aurora. New York: Orbit Publications.

Thompson, Clive (2016). “Space Mining Could Set Off a Star War.” Wired. 

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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