Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Meet the founders of Asgardia, the first official space-based nation.
Has “we’ve got to get the hell out of here!” crossed your mind recently, vis-a-vis the Earth? You’re in luck: The universe’s first space nation is officially open for business.
Asgardia, named after the mythical Norse city in the sky, doesn’t have a physical outpost in space yet. But as of this week it does have a prime minister, a parliament, and a population of some 200,000 citizens.
The brainchild of Russian scientist/billionaire Igor Ashurbeyli, Asgardia was founded in 2016 with a mission “to serve entire humanity and each and everyone, regardless of his or her personal welfare and the prosperity of the country where they happened to be born,” as Ashurbeyli put it in a 2016 speech. On December 6, 2017, the nation launched it’s first bit of infrastructure, a satellite called Asgardia-1 that orbits 450 kilometers above Earth. Then officials focused on drafting governing documents, choosing a flag (a golden orb inside twelve rings), writing a national anthem (violins, airy choral nationalistic chanting), and creating an Asgardian calendar (they’re just starting the year 0002). Within the next earth year, they hope to launch a national cryptocurrency (of course) called SOLAR, which will be traded internationally, and between citizens on this planet.
“The idea of creating an independent state that is unlike any other came to me more than 10 years ago,” Ashurbeyli tells me in an email. “But a nation needs a territory, and the existing land assets on our planet have been divvied up.”
That’s the same dilemma that other alternative-nation enthusiasts have resolved by attempting to build floating cities on the open ocean, with extremely limited success. Ashurbeyli set his sights much, much higher. “In 2016, when I was in Montreal at the international conference on space law, I thought to myself: Why not make this new independent nation a space one? Is there a reason for why not?” He spoke with lawyers and specialists in the area of space law at McGill University in Canada, including Ram Jakhu, of McGill’s Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, who is now an advisor for the project.
As Newsweek noted, space law itself might pose a challenge to Asgardia’s autonomy: The United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty stipulates that existing states “shall be responsible for national space activities, whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities,” and that outer space “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” And without nation-state designation from the United Nations, Asgardia isn’t yet a state—though it plans to apply.
Ashurbeyli hopes these strictures will evolve with the times. “We believe that the creation of a new legal platform for the exploration of near-Earth and deep space is crucial to keep pace with humanity’s rapid technological and scientific expansion off-planet,” he says. “Universal space law and astro-politics have to replace the current outdated international space law and geopolitics.”
To help establish more legitimacy for Asgardia’s existence—to help it transcend its legal status as a functionally made-up place—Ashurbeyli and his cohorts have been assembling the space-nation’s still-earthbound bureaucracy. “Asgardia is run on this thing we call a language principle,” says Yasmin Perez, a spokesperson for the nation. “Instead of separating people on Earth by boundaries, or countries, or races, the only differentiating principle that Asgardia recognizes is language.” There are 13 districts—yes, oddly reminiscent to the dystopian world of The Hunger Games—twelve of which represent the top most spoken languages (English holding the highest percentage), with the 13th one containing the extras.
As in the U.S.’s system, where smaller states are given fewer Congressional representatives to match their populations, the electoral districts are assigned proportional parliamentary seats. (The French district gets fewer reps than the English one does.)
To elect these 147 representatives, Asgardia held its first parliamentary elections this year, during which they also chose a speaker, a chairman, and an acting prime minister. They’ve been publishing preliminary documents online, but Monday’s parliamentary meeting in Vienna marked the first time the group met together in the meatspace.
“Asgardia is the only idea or concept or activity that is completely bottom-up,” says Jakhu. “The framework is already there; it already has its own constitution to bring people together, and plan things collectively.”
The path to citizenship is refreshingly short and direct, more like signing up for an online multi-player game than getting processed by immigration authorities: To become an Asgardian, simply log into asgardia.space, where a bright yellow button implores you to, well, “Become an Asgardian.” From there, enter your email address, your name, home address, and education background. Nothing requires you to denounce your home country or your home planet; no stipulations to trade in your passport or change your mailing address. There are no taxes, no registration fees. No one is turned away at this border.
“Any resident of Earth can become a citizen of Asgardia, as long as he assents in the Declaration, and abides by the Constitution and the legislation of Asgardia,” reads Asgardia’s Declaration of Unity. The free, independent nation is meant to offer “equal access to space for all people regardless of the country of origin, nationality, location, age, gender, sex, race, etc.” (This is a more inclusive departure from Ashurbeyli’s initial vision that “the first Asgardians will be those who work in the fields of space research and exploration, and space technology, as well as investors in these fields, including small investors,” though even then he envisioned that priority would be given to early adopters.)
The mission has been attractive to many. After going public in October 2016, the nation received applications from about 100,000 people in less than 48 hours, says Lena de Winne, the Deputy Head of Administration of Asgardia and the CEO of the NGO supporting it. “We were not prepared—our servers were not strong enough,” she says. Now, with a more rigorous, multi-step registration process meant to weed out bots and passive subscribers, they have 200,000-plus active citizens representing more than 200 Earth countries. There are 3,926 from Moscow; 934 from New York; and 1,078 from Calcutta. (There aren’t any from Iceland, or Minnesota.) Asgardia also just hit 20,000 Instagram followers.
“Are you an Asgardian citizen?” de Winne asks me.
“No,” I say. “Should I be?”
“Well, it’s a free world!” She pauses. “And we have by far more men than women.”
Ah, finally, the catch: Currently, about 85 percent of registered Asgardians are men. This squares with Pew Research indicating that men are more likely to participate in online community groups or fan clubs, but doesn’t reflect the relatively equal split required to sustain a nation’s fertile longevity. (About 70 percent of Asgardians are under 35, and you must be 18 to join.)
So, what would compel someone to leave this peaceful and oxygen-rich environment to join a nation of mostly boys in a hostile and airless one? That question doesn’t have to be answered just yet, because as of now, you can’t launch your whole human body into the cosmos. Instead, Asgardian citizens are able to upload a virtual presence to the orbiting satellite, with file sizes corresponding to time of matriculation: The first 100,000 Asgardians got 500 KB; those who joined later got 200KB or 100KB.
Last year, Asgardia ran into trouble when citizens started uploading pirated images, songs, and videos onto the satellite—many of which violated international copyright laws, which apply in space, too. The website now explicitly reminds would-be uploaders that “Asgardia respects copyrights, trademark rights, and other intellectual property rights.” (This is the kind of stuff that might be litigated in Supreme Space Court in the future.)
Besides these hiccups, everything seems to be going according to plan. Ashurbeyli wants Asgardians to physically emigrate to space in his lifetime. In 5 to 7 years, he promises to have satellites providing Internet access across the globe deployed; in 10 to 15 years, he envisions “space arks” floating amongst the stars. And within 25 years, he aims to establish a permanent settlement on the Moon. Given that citizens would have dibs on the first seats on the ark, it’s probably not a bad idea to get in on the Asgardian action now.
Clearly, many logistical challenges need to be overcome before that physical outpost is established. But space immigration is urgently needed. “We may perish before the end of this century,” says Jakhu, paraphrasing Stephen Hawking. “Humans moved from Africa to Europe, Asia, and the Americas. They’ll move from sea to space, and space to beyond,” he continued. “It’s very much in the DNA of human beings.”
Asgardians are hardly alone in adopting this cosmic manifest destiny; it’s a popular theme in techno-utopian circles. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is launching Teslas into space on the back of his Falcon Heavy rocket and pledging to send (at least a few representatives from) humanity to Mars by 2022; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is planning to launch tourists there, too, via his Blue Origin spaceflight company. Asgardians don’t see these private ventures as competition. They applaud the billionaires for “making a huge effort to make human access to space cheaper,” says de Winne. “We invite Elon Musk to collaborate with us.”
But President Donald Trump’s recent “Space Force” scheme has attracted more concern among Asgardia’s nascent diplomatic corps. The president has directed the Pentagon to develop a sixth military branch to enforce “American dominance in space.” Despite Asgardia’s fierce Norse origins, the space nation is notably conflict-averse, and it released a statement of opposition to the administration’s plan earlier this week. “The essence of Asgardia is Peace in Space, and the prevention of Earth’s conflicts being transferred into space,” says Ashurbeyli.
That, I have to admit, sounds extremely fine to me.
“Have I convinced you to become a citizen yet?” de Winne asks.
I laugh nervously. “What’s the de-registration process like?”
Ah, what the heck. Bye!