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The dream of travel to Mars is no longer a fantasy. Explorer satellites have discharged their cargo safely, leaving monitors to rove the Red Planet, photograph and report.

Already there is talk of the next step: a manned mission to Mars. If transport technology is no longer under the control of a single, or even a group of nations, corporate consortia will compete to monetize Mars.

Every day there is a new development. Not all of these are major; some are just baby steps. But the cumulative effort points only to one direction: a manned colony on Mars.

International treaties, it is said, provide for a legal structure to govern the Mars colony. This will not be the case because the experiment has already been tried and failed. The current idea is to let there be no national or comprehensive law. The Earth-bound laws tying a person to a particular country are said to govern that person's behavior. Thus, a Chinese person will be judged under Chinese law. An American under American law--whatever that is--and a Mexican citizen will demand trial under the laws of Mexico.

American law is a particularly thorny problem because, as every first-year law student knows, there is no federal common law. Nor is there a comprehensive federal criminal law. Disparate treatment of citizens on Mars for the same acts will lead to claims of unfairness and discrimination. These claims will be correct.

Legally, we've been here before. The "home nation" or "extraterritorial" application of law was tried in Shanghai in the 1930's and didn't work. If the system didn't work in Shanghai, why would anyone think it can work on Mars?

Once the colonists set up on the planet, it will be too late. The question needs to be answered before we go. How much law do we take with us?