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I'm in the early stages of thinking up a space science fiction story about a particular group of scientists and young explorers on mission to investigate some points of interest in the galaxy. Their mission is to visit some interesting phenomena (unexplained astrophysical phenomena, possible signals from an alien civilization, ruins of a fallen civilization that they know to be there, candidates for expansion, etc) that have been observed and perform some hands-on research on what's going on. Part of their job would be bringing some stuff to the laboratory on board for study and sometimes carry them back to headquarters on the return journey.

One small detail I've been thinking about is that some of the crew might want to keep for themselves some keepsakes and trinkets to remind them of their journey: stuff like a mineral naturally carved into an ornate shape found on an asteroid, a sample of a newly-discovered element, a trinket from a civilization they encountered, a piece of useful technology from a derelict space station and so on. But although allowing some degree of personal collection can be a good way to strengthen the emotional intimacy of the crew to their mission and might even directly aid in the mission sometimes, we can't have the crew just pocketing (or worse, hauling) stuff on their missions, especially if the items are very valuable or the method of obtaining them is unacceptable.

Now, space is big and weird. Nobody knows what the explorers are going to find, it's going to be impossible to try and write a full list of what's allowed and what's not, let alone draft a totally loophole-free law. So I'm not looking for a complete answer, rather to gather some points on what considerations should be taken by both the headquarters and the crew when deciding whether an item can be taken as a personal belonging. For example, one consideration would be whether the item is a unique thing or something that's either available in plenty where they found it or easy to reproduce now that they know how it's made, and in the latter case it usually wouldn't hurt to let the crew take a small amount unless the nature of the item makes it difficult to allow it to be personally taken (and potentially sold or released). And then, how is "a small amount" determined?

Some context and considerations:

  1. The nature of this expedition is scientific, not expansionist (that's handled by another branch of expedition teams). Discovering valuable resources is not even an expectation but simply something that might happen and need guidelines. And the expedition is organized by either a government or an institution or something, definitely not a corporation, plus there are very serious moral standards not just for this mission but in the society as a whole. All this means profit isn't the goal, they just want to learn.
  2. Communication between the explorers and the headquarters is quick and reasonably prompt, but there are numerous expedition teams. With so much going on, the explorers are expected to make their own decisions as much as possible. Note, by the way, that value assessment is going to be a difficult task to carry out immediately even when brought to the attention of the headquarters.
  3. There are automated protocols to periodically report what happened during the expedition in great detail, and that includes diagnostic scans on the ship, so it's practically impossible to sneak any significant cargo on board and keep it hidden. There's extensive screening including personality tests when selecting candidates so that there's reasonable expectation that the selected explorers won't do it with or without those scans anyway. They'd still need these rules though: the reasonable expectation could still be betrayed, no one knows what values could be found in the far reaches of the galaxy, and even if nothing goes wrong about their morality, having guidelines can still help the crew avoid some lapses of judgment.
  4. They aren't going to say that everything found during the expedition is the property of the headquarters and ask the crew to officially purchase whatever they want to keep for themselves.

Looking forward to discussions on space exploration laws.

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    $\begingroup$ We have laws like that now, pocketing a rock at an paleontological site is fine, collecting an artifact or fossil is not. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 2 '20 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ It actually is illegal to take a rock from a paleontological site in many countries. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 2 '20 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I've known many paleontologists to take small rocks or bone fragments from these sites anyway, even if they work in countries where this is forbidden. Usually nothing of scientific value, just small keepsakes or examples of the kind of rocks and fossils they work with. It's hypocritical as heck but people are going to be people. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 '20 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I am thinking of something like dinosaur national monument where you can take several pounds of rocks but not any fossils. Or US federal land where you can take up to 30lbs of rocks but collecting any vertebrate fossil material is illegal without a permit (has a hefty fine as well.) $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 2 '20 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ Why not declare everything found during the expedition the property of the mission organizers? Given the tremendous unit cost of any kind of space exploration, it's hard to argue they don't deserve a share at least. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Aug 2 '20 at 22:02
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The crew may bring back pretty much anything they judge safe and sane to bring back. Final word on what may be brought back will be left to the mission commander with veto from the crew commander. With that comes legal liabilities.

Only disobeying orders, disregarding protocol, and general recklessness should be punishable. Mistakes, no matter the magnitude, should be assumed to be nobody's, except maybe the organisation's, fault.

Punishment should at the very least include a ban from any cooperating space agency, but may also include fines and jail time depending on the severity, and consequences, of the offence.


No matter what is brought back, all of it is property of the organisation supervising the mission, and will be analysed thoroughly to ensure it is safe. The analysis may take days, weeks, or even years, and there's nothing you can do about that. Once the initial testing is done, the organisation may classify these items/materials into four categories:

  • To be conserved. Either for more immediate testing, or for future generations in case they have more test ideas. This should be where the overwhelming majority of material ends up. There may be provisions to allow selling/donating these to competing space agencies as well, after all science is a collaborative effort.

  • Hazardous. Note that this category is for hazardous material that does not fall in the above category, i.e. it has no further purpose. Those are to be destroyed, or securely stored, whichever is deemd safest. They may not be used for any purpose, period.

  • Historically significant. Those will be donated/sold to museums and/or approved organisations. This may be your first scoop of Moon dust, which in and out of itself isn't more scientifically relevant than any other scoop, but still carries significant value.

  • Disposable. Pretty much anything else you have no use for. Those may be donated, auctioned or discarded. The specific rules here would be left to the organisation, but should be fair and transparent. You could for instance offer it to original mission members, and if none of them wants it to members of the organisation, then auction it to the general public. If sold/donated, then those items become the property of the person it was sold/donated to, end of story.

The classification should be overseen by an independent committee. The committee should ensure, among other things, that the Disposable category doesn't siphon useful material into a black market, and that hazardous items are properly assigned to the Hazardous category. It also should probably be a civilian government entity.


In practice, the mission commander may allow the crew to bring more material than is needed for the mission (provided it is safe to do so). The excess, once analysed and proved safe, will be classified as disposable and therefore the astronauts may take property of it. They, in turn, may adopt the sacred rule of dibs to arbitrate who gets what from the start. They should also understand that it is a privilege, and that abuse may lead to unwanted oversight and ultimately revocation of said privilege.

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  • Each crewmember has an official weight allowance for personal gear. This could be a crucifix or rosary, a framed picture of a loved one, whatever. The allowance is big enough for a few consumables, too. Sweets, liquor, whatever. (Subject to safety regulations. No drunkenness without permission.) As consumables are consumed the crewmember can request a weight recalculation.
  • If their other duties allow, they can collect collectibles and add them to their weight allowance. The science staff checks for safety, the captain has a veto, the superiors keep prospecting from hindering the main mission.
  • If they sell any of their finds later on, that income is taxed significantly.
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    $\begingroup$ A weight allowance is a really bad way to stop people pilfering ancestors' ashes, artworks, property deeds, memory sticks with critical data, babies, ... The provenance of many European works of art, during the various wars, should be a reminder of how likely it is that weight limits and oversight by superiors will have any effect. (Hint: not at all.) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 3 '20 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ May I suggest that it be a mass allowance - otherwise, some smart-alec will either stick an anti-grav generator in their Personal-Box or, if gravity control tech doesn't exist, attempt to argue that there is no weight in space, so their P-Box can be as large as they like. (Also, based on existing systems for ocean-based Science Cruises, it is more likely to be a combined mass and size allowance: No more than this mass, plus fits within a box of these dimensions) $\endgroup$ Aug 3 '20 at 14:23
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Submit and wait:

I think the simplest thing to do is the bureaucratic one - everything you want to keep has to be turned in, then a committee needs to examine and approve the item. NO LIFEFORMS, period.

Everything else would undergo scientific examination, and if it proved to be insignificant and safe, it could be returned, properly registered. Anything that might be valuable but not significant could be "issued" to the person, but still the property of the organization. An alien laser gun that functioned just like a human one would be examined thoroughly, and then could be issued as equipment. Anything culturally or scientifically important would kept like any discovery.

It's kind of the same rule that applies to gifts acquired during work - some things are too much, others need to be reported so there is no appearance on impropriety. Either way, bureaucracies are the same everywhere. Do your paperwork.

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  • $\begingroup$ I mean you're right, I can't think of a scenario where the crew absolutely has to take something that's can't have been loaded to the spaceship already anyway. So if it's already on board, some bureaucracy could be undertaken. Also I like your analogy to gifts during work, would definitely help think about the matter. $\endgroup$
    – Chaffee
    Aug 3 '20 at 1:44
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It's all on a per-item basis, where the function and value of the item are compared to the total value of what has been discovered and inherent risks of exploration. If you find an empty planet with a single personal teleportation device that isn't available anywhere else, you likely aren't going to be allowed to keep it. If you hit a planet where at great risk you've secured a dozen things and a personal teleportation device is small potatoes compared to the rest (and you may have some copies) no one is going to be pissed about you keeping one.

As o.m. says, each find has to be vetted. You don't want that small PDA that one of your crewmen took as keepsake to be the last item logged into the remains of the WMD network that caused that civilization's collapse and fiddling with it causes the last stored WMD's to go off. Or that pet you've picked up has sex with your face after which things burst out of you and start eating the rest of the crew.

Things also have to be checked on potential reverse engineering. If it can be reverse engineered you'll have to deliver it back (I'm assuming a universe where for some reason research is so divergent that there's a high chance it's not reverse-engineerable, which fits the "ancient tech is better/destroyed advanced civilization" narrative). Once it's reverse-engineered you'll likely be able to make a claim at the original if it's still intact or the first newly produced on that technology. If it's not possible to reverse-engineer you can likely keep it if it's not too expensive.

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Keep in mind, you can't stop "human" nature

There is no law, no policing force, not threat of violence, that can completely stop the all-too-human (but not exclusively human) desire to take a souvenir.

A friend of mine was golfing on Guam when he and a friend teed off and dropped their balls over a rise they couldn't see over. They searched for the balls, but couldn't find them. No one was behind them, so they teed off again — and once again couldn't find their balls. So one chipped a ball over the rise while the other lay in the grass and peered over it. Out from the forest came an iguana, intent on taking more bright, shiny souvenirs! They tracked it to its den about 10 yards into the jungle where the little honker had squirreled away hundreds of golf balls.

What you can do is set expectations and hire police to the best of your ability. Note that no credible scientific organization (or government supporting science) would ever legally allow the removal of souvenirs from any investigative site, and it's fair to believe that the equivalent of parks and world heritage sites will exist in the future. Therefore, the premise that you're looking to permit the activity doesn't makes sense. It's already there! "Finders keepers," after all. What only makes sense is how you're going to limit it. So let me introduce a frame challenge.

And you appear to have already solved that with your 3rd point: automatic scans are already in place that will always detect something that should be there. Such a service will never be perfect — but let's assume that it is. Since you can impose any limit you want, why would you impose any at all (beyond what I've already mentioned)?

Weight Many scifi stories tend to ignore the issue of weight. Engines, inertial dampers, thrusters, and various forms of gravitics are all assumed to be so efficient (or there is so much available power) that it doesn't matter if someone brings a couple of tons worth of baubles back from the surface. The reality is that in space there are always limits and costs. From a believable and reasonable perspective, there is a limit to the total weight of souvenirs anyone can possess.

Volume Many scifi stories also handwave living space. Look at those massive bridges on Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyers! Yeah, reality will probably favor the acrobatics seen on Apollo 13. Let's assume that modern submarines and aircraft carriers represent the truth better than current scifi. Your people may only have a cubic yard worth of personal storage space to work with. Period. If you can't close the lid, something's gotta go.

Low-Level Dangerous You're right! Space is large and weird! Consequently, there's a better-than-average chance that the cool rock or bit-o-tech you're picking up as nonchalantly as a dandelion actually has a new form of Coronavirus on it, or some new kind of radiation that's going to cause everyone on the crew to melt in a week, or a microbe that will result in something pushing through your chest. Or nanites that will begin converting the ship (and later the crew) in hours. Like the man says...

Don’t pander to me, kid. One tiny crack in the hull and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait till you’re sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles, see if you’re so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding. Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence. (Star Trek (2009))

I'd have to hope that the automatics will pick up the high-level dangerous stuff, but there's plenty of low-level dangerous stuff that should scare the bajoobadoos out of everyone.

But if that's not enough, there's one more reason that's probably more at the core of all current terrestrial laws than anybody really wants to admit....

What's Mine is Mine... The swamp fiends of Ch'urtex 5 may think the little tool you use to chip away at the rocks is magic... but they're not stupid. You want their rocks and what they want is all the Mek'kalkak fruit you can lay your hands on. And since Star Command has decided that Ch'urtex 5 is strategically positioned against the probably-invading-tomorrow wOOOdanalatiAH, they're more than happy to back the Science Directorate's petition before the Regional Parliament to ban the collection of those darn rocks because, just as luck would have it, Mek'kalkak fruit happens to make better than average rocket fuel. But, of course, the swamp fiends want the Mek'kalkak fruit — and thus The Interplanetary Treaty Banning the Collection of That Darn Rock was born. Never (and I mean this... never) underestimate the attractive force of the first-person possessive.

Conclusion

You have no reason to determine how to permit the collection of souvenirs, humanity has a fathomless capacity for greed and plenty of sticky fingers. You really do need to ask the question the other way around: what meaningful ways are there to stop it.

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Keepsakes would be included in their Intellectual Property Waiver

A similar problem was encountered in the early days of the modern technology industry. People were hired by companies to R&D valuable technologies for their employers, but while being paid handsomely to research one thing at work, they would have a multi-million dollar idea "in their free time". This lead to inevitable conflicts between employers and employees because companies would claim the idea happened on work time, or that the discovery would have been impossible without the use of materials/equipment provided by the employer.

To end the constant disputes, many employers now include a clause in their contracts that state that ANY discoveries made while in their employment are the intellectual property of the employer. And any employer who does not make such a claim is assumed to allow the employee to retain full rights to any discovery made while in their employment.

By applying this same practice to your space missions, it would be almost guaranteed that a scientific expedition would require a forfeiture of discovery rights waiver in their employee's contracts. This means that anything your explorers find or learn on the mission belongs to the employer regardless of whether you collected it during working hours or with the employer's equipment.

In all likelihood, keepsakes will probably be taken all the time, most people won't care, but it will rarely be legal (like people who steal office supplies for home use).

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, I had a similar idea reading the question, but in a more relaxed way. I don't know how it works somewhere else, but in my country the company "owns" what you create during work time and with work tools, has a pre-emption on what you create in your free time that is related to the core business of the company, and can do nothing on other areas $\endgroup$
    – frarugi87
    Aug 3 '20 at 9:54
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People are going to take souvenirs anyway, no matter what the law says

I come from paleontology. In my field, I have seen a lot of colleagues pocket rocks or small chunks of bone from fossil sites, even if they are working in an area where it is forbidden by law from taking rocks or fossil chunks from a fossil site (either because it is in a national park or in a country where private ownership of fossils or taking fossils out of said country is illegal). They usually claim they are doing so for educational purposes or to show what kinds of rocks or bones they work on (claiming the bone chunks aren't scientifically important), but the fact is they are doing it and ignoring the legality of the situation. I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing was common in fields like archaeology or biology. And that's not even getting into what non-scientists do at places like Badlands or Petrified Forest National Park.

Souvenier-taking seems to be an intrisically human thing that people will do, regardless of the ethics or legality of it. Astronauts already keep souvenirs of gear from their missions as mementos. On a more grisly notes, soldiers are known to take mementos from their battles, even when the higher-ups tell them to knock it off. Human beings just seem to be magpies by nature.

This can also help your plot. There have been tons of space horror stories where the driving force behind the plot is they took something from an alien planet or archaeological site that they shouldn't have, and the fact that they took something they shouldn't have means they didn't seek outside help until it was too late. After all, to seek outside help would be to admit that they broke the rules and took something off-planet in the first place. The fact that they illegally took something from an expedition that they shouldn't have is the "sin" that unleashes the evil of the antagonist on the protagonists, per horror movie parlance.

So, to sum things up, you don't need to worry about writing a law that specifically allows people to take souvenirs to make your plot work. People are going to take souvenirs no matter what you do, and if real life is any indication people will mostly turn a blind eye to it like people do from someone stealing pens from the office unless they are really brazen with what they steal (e.g., an entire spaceship), what they steal is obviously and extremely dangerous (e.g., an entire spaceship), or whoever the commanding officer is at the time is a real hardass and doesn't allow the rules to be bent under any circumstances.

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No Biologicals, no weapons i.e. a face hugger is not a collectable nor is someones antique nuclear hand grenade. All tech items are checked/scanned for purpose and function before boarding.

Other than that a contract with potentially severe civil and criminal penalties requiring all collectables to be logged, scanned and tagged to its owners before boarding so there are no fights over ownership at a later date.

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