Future Space Settlements: Lessons from History (2024-2025)


Human beings are on the cusp of settling beyond Earth. While much attention is being focused on the aerospace engineering challenges of sending humans to outer space, less consideration has been given to how human settlements on the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies would be organized, sustained and governed.

In the fifty years or so since space exploration was a Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, space activities have become the business of many more governments and a rapidly growing array of private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and more. Who, then, is responsible for managing the risks of space launches and space debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) or the human and ecological risks of potential encounters with extraterrestrial life? What law governs private property in space or travelers and settlers moving about the planets under the auspices of both nations and companies? How should relations and possible conflicts be coordinated and governed if multiple settlements off-Earth are made by multiple national governments and companies with differing interests, ideologies and social and legal systems? 

The questions posed by interplanetary exploration and settlement require interdisciplinary answers, raising technological, legal, economic, environmental, social, security and diplomatic issues for which the long history of human exploration, settlement and colonization can be a guide.

Project Description

This project brings together scholars and students from across the university to explore human expansion into space through the history of planetary exploration, settlement and colonization on Earth. The team will investigate what lessons past experiences on Earth may offer for future communities off-Earth, from Norwegians settling Iceland in the 870s C.E. through the Mayflower Compact in 1620. Team members will investigate whether the long history of company-led colonization, such as the East India or Hudson’s Bay Companies, might inform policy decisions by and about the ambitions of corporations like SpaceX or Blue Origin. The team will also consider the consequences of encounters with life on other planets in light of the legal, cultural, etiological and environmental impacts of past settler encounters with indigenous human, animal, plant and microbial life.

The project will collect and collate a digital archive of settler/colonial charters, laws, writings, records and histories. This archive will be a publicly available output and a foundation for subteams to follow up on. The team will convene a core course where undergraduates, graduate and professional students, and faculty will meet to discuss readings, hear from visiting speakers and practitioners and continue to build a primary and secondary source archive. 

Vertically integrated subteams will draw on the archive and other materials to develop “case study” approaches to the broader questions set out by the project and assess and compare what insights these past examples offer for future space settlements. The project will develop web-based outputs (essays, visual essays and videos) and a website to showcase these materials.

Anticipated Outputs

Digital archive; case studies; public-facing website; poster report; publication; connections with external partners

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will consist of 8 graduate students and 15 undergraduate students interested in anthropology, astrobiology, business, economics, engineering, environment, ethics, history, law, medicine, philosophy, physics, political science, public health, public policy, psychology, religion, risk analysis, sociology and more. Graduate and professional students are expected to take leadership roles within subteams and should be excited about teaching and mentoring opportunities.

Team members will enroll in a weekly required course to organize, perform work toward project goals and hear from invited scholars and practitioners. Undergraduates will form integrated subteams led by a graduate student and faculty member to perform research on case studies. Chelsea Nielsen will serve as project manager.

Team members will establish core competencies in the history of exploration, expansion and colonization as well as core problems of space exploration and settlement. All students will develop research and writing skills. Team members will contribute to a final poster, written analyses, web content, proposals for future grants and projects and other products as appropriate.

Students interested in research or space-related careers will receive professional development opportunities by engaging closely with team members, visitors and potential external partners, such as NASA. 

In an optional summer component, 2-3 students will engage in collecting and collating primary and archival source material detailing the history of colonial exploration and settlement. This component is expected to run from early June to late July with students working 20 hours per week.


Summer 2024 – Spring 2025

  • Summer 2024 (optional): Create digital archive
  • Fall 2024: Complete shared readings; meet with visiting speakers and practitioners; build documentary and secondary source archives; start subteams for case study research; coordinate affiliated courses
  • Spring 2025: Perform subteam research; continue building documentary archive; synthesize web-based outputs; develop website; produce poster report; discuss publications


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, DECIPHER: Going to Mars – Science, Society and Sustainability (2020-2021).


Team Leaders

  • Chelsea Nielsen, School of Law and Nicholas School of the Environment-JD and MEM Student
  • Philip Stern, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law
  • Giovanni Zanalda, Social Science Research Institute

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Daniel Buckland, School of Medicine-Surgery: Emergency Medicine
  • Mohamed Noor, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • Siobhan Oca, Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science
  • Robert Pearson, Duke Rethinking Diplomacy Program
  • Shitong Qiao, Duke Law
  • Mara Revkin, Duke Law