Asgardia: The problems in building a space society
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Giant space station near Mars (Credit: Alamy)
This summer, citizens of the world’s first space nation gathered in Austria. But is the society they hope to build in orbit really a utopia?

As of today, I’m an official citizen of two nations. One is the US, which has 325 million citizens and an area of almost 10 million sq km. The other is Asgardia, which has some 246,000 citizens, but physically exists for now only in the form of a 6lb (2.7kg) bread-box-size satellite floating in low-Earth orbit since November 2017.

One day, Asgardia plans to have an enormous “space ark” orbiting our home world, a colony on the Moon, and perhaps even further in the future on other “celestial bodies”, according to the constitution.

The nation’s ‘leader’, Igor Raufovich Ashurbeyli, isn’t joking around. According to his CV, the Azerbaijani billionaire has been involved in publishing, telecommunications, science education and in consulting on space threat defence, nanotechnology, and aerospace research. He also rose to become CEO for Almaz-Antey, a large Russian state-owned defense contractor that builds missile systems and other military hardware. After leaving the company, he turned to building cathedrals in Russia.

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And on 25 June in Vienna, Austria, he became Asgardia’s first “Head of Nation”. His face is on the official Asgardia commemorative coin that guests received at the post-inauguration gala dinner.

The inauguration ceremony this night in Vienna’s magnificent baroque Hofburg Palace includes trumpet fanfares, a girl choir singing the new Asgardia national anthem, and a pre-recorded message from a Russian astronaut on the International Space Station. Then Ashurbeyli, bedecked with an emblem on a medieval-style necklace, gives a speech affirming Asgardia’s noble goals of “peace in space and the prevention of Earth's conflicts being transferred into space”.

Afterwards, about 350 guests – citizens, members of parliament, donors, supporters, press and others – are ushered into a huge ornate hall for a three-course dinner. We are entertained by fabulous international musicians and dancers performing everything from classic opera, concerti and ballet, to flamenco, a Japanese folk song and Strauss played on a red electric violin by a strolling musician in thigh-high black boots. These performances were chosen partly to recognize the 12 official languages of Asgardia (English is its working language). Ashurbeyli tells me later that giving the arts a prominent place was important because “weapons divide us and culture unites us”.

The event took place at the prestigious Hofburger Palace in Vienna (Credit: Alamy)

The event took place at the prestigious Hofburger Palace in Vienna (Credit: Alamy)

It all seems grandly utopian, but how does Asgardia plan to rise above the long history of our planet’s conflicts?

The word “Asgardia” comes from “Asgard”, a mythical Norse world where gods reside. Ashurbeyli calls the modern Asgardia a “kingdom”, but his title is not king; it is “Head of Nation”. According to Asgardia’s constitution, this position lasts for a five-year term, and the office holder may be re-elected until he or she reaches the maximum age of 82. Successors are nominated by the head of nation, the space council and parliament.

After dinner, Ashurbeyli stands by his table and speaks briefly with each of the citizens who’ve lined up to have a word and take a selfie. Mitchell Brogan, an Asgardian from Canada who works in cryptocurrencies and blockchain, says he was nervous meeting the Head of Nation, but Ashurbeyli put him at ease and even “allowed me to teach him how to fist bump”.

Later, Ashurbeyli sits for one-on-one interviews with the press, using a Russian-English translator. When we meet, I tell him I am a citizen of Asgardia. “Hello, Asgardian!”, he says in English, managing a smile. Ashurbeyli, who’s descended from an Azerbaijani noble family, tells me that he chose to call his new nation a “kingdom” partly because “I like United Kingdom”, and partly because the word “contains something magical. Don’t you think there’s something romantic about it? It’s like ‘Kingdom Come’, a kingdom in heaven, not on Earth.”

The head of nation holds the power to disband parliament

Ashurbeyli is a Christian, but he has decreed all religions and political parties “are banned on Asgardia” as a way of leaving behind Earthly conflict. In spite of these decrees, he says “Asgardia is a pure democracy”.

But if you look at the the constitution, the head of nation holds the power to disband parliament.

Jeremy Saget is one of 146 members of Asgardia’s parliament. The French medical doctor, long interested in space travel and space medicine, says the “kingdom” identity was troubling at first, but he believes in the concept of a constitutional monarchy. “What’s important is someone to set the right tone”, says the MP, who once applied to be an astronaut for the European Union.

Asgardia’s 246,000-odd citizens come from all over the world. Arlene Buklarewicz lives in Hawai‘i. She’s a nurse, end-of-life caregiver and volunteer at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawaii. She didn’t come to Vienna, but explained to me by email that she became an Asgardian citizen because she saw “a chance to truly form an ‘enlightened’ nation that has the opportunity to start with a clean slate”.

More than 240,000 people around the world have become citizens of Asgardia so far (Credit: Bill Harby)

More than 240,000 people around the world have become citizens of Asgardia so far (Credit: Bill Harby)

She wants to see “if ritual and the tendency toward the supernatural is wired into our DNA, or if we can start fresh with the beauty of enlightened imagination in the formation of a new concept of ‘nation’”.

Buklarewicz is among a significant minority of Asgardia’s citizens: she’s a woman. About 85% of citizens (and 72% of MPs) are men. Why so few women?

The wife of MP Elshad Kaziev – who asks to be identified only as Kate – has an opinion: “My immediate thought is that boys are more interested in science fiction. Whether you like it or not, women are less interested.”

I was thrilled to become a citizen, despite knowing that my new nation only exists for now as a mini-satellite not much bigger than a Rubik’s Cube

Would she move to the ark, if given the chance? “Oh yes. I’m adventurous”, she says without hesitation.

Her husband also says he would leap at the chance to go into orbit. Kaziev - half-Azeri, half-Russian – became an Asgardian citizen and member of parliament because of his childhood. “Inside our home courtyard, we had Russian, Azerbaijani, Jewish, Armenian, all in the same apartment building living in peace,” he says. He wants Asgardia to be the same.

To become a citizen, people like me simply have to provide our details on the website, and click a box that says we agree with the constitution, which we can read online. It’s as easy as creating a Facebook account.

I was thrilled to become a citizen, despite knowing that my new nation only exists for now as a mini-satellite not much bigger than a Rubik’s Cube.

The women at the event were vastly outnumbered by men (Credit: Bill Harby)

The women at the event were vastly outnumbered by men (Credit: Bill Harby)

But what about that constitution? Ashurbeyli says it was carefully developed by him and a handful of international jurists who’d studied other constitutions. Their document then was approved by us citizens – although a condition of being granted citizenship was checking the box that said we approve the constitution.

The Asgardia Constitution mostly reads like a utopian manifesto: inspiring and impractical. A few excerpts from the nearly 9,000-word document:

  • Among the Supreme Values: “peace in space and peaceful settlement of the Universe”.
  • “All citizens of Asgardia are equal, irrespective of their Earthly country of origin, residence, citizenship, race, nationality, gender, religion, language, financial standing, or any other attribute.”
  • “Asgardia shall be a nation of the supremacy of science and technology, and a nation of ideas”.
  • “Any persecution for expression of views and convictions shall be prohibited, provided that such views do not contain propaganda of immorality; seek to undermine or diminish Supreme Values; threaten national security; incite violence and strife; demean the honour and dignity of individuals; disclose restricted information...”.

The constitution also contains some other red flags for utopians:

  • “To ensure information security, the Government regulates the circulation of certain types of information”.
  • Asgardia’s “legal instruments” include not only “referendum decisions” and “Acts of Parliament”, but also “decrees of the head of nation”.

Also, Asgardia’s head of nation has the constitutional power to nominate his successor “on the basis of genealogy or on any other basis”. Candidates may also be nominated by the parliament and the Supreme Space Council”, but it’s the Head of Nation who appoints the Chairman of the Space Council, which “is a special governance body” that reports to, guess who, the Head of Nation.

The Head of Nation also “appoints and removes” the supreme justice of the court and the prosecutor general. Additionally, he or she “has the right to veto candidates” for other top positions, including the National Bank of Asgardia and justices of the court. And to “dissolve Parliament”.

The session is closed to Asgardian citizens, closed to the public, closed to the press

Clearly, the Asgardia constitution gives strong powers to its chief executive.

The first meeting of Asgardia’s parliament takes place the day before the inauguration. The session is closed to Asgardian citizens, closed to the public, closed to the press. Members of parliament (elected by fellow citizens online) are told not to share anything specific with anyone. Afterwards, in the spectacularly majestic Baroque halls of Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, I ask several MPs how the meeting went.

Member of parliament John Fine, from the US, accompanied by his wife and daughter dressed in fluffy lace princess dresses, says the session covered lots of ground, and a few laws were passed. But he “can’t talk about what was discussed”.

Fellow MP Linda Jack says MPs were gagged from sharing any specifics of the session. Before meeting her fellow lawmakers, she was sceptical about them. “Is it going to be a load of Trekkies?” she wondered. Instead, she found “a whole range of intelligent people”.

The Asgardia constitution takes many cues from the English system - but lacks the transparency of the likes of the House of Lords (Credit: Alamy)

The Asgardia constitution takes many cues from the English system - but lacks the transparency of the likes of the House of Lords (Credit: Alamy)

MP Svetlana Bronnikova says the extended 12-hour session of parliament “was very intense”. She’s a clinical psychologist and Russian citizen now living in the Netherlands. She found her colleagues “very dedicated, ready to change something”.

Would she want to make a new home on the space ark? “Absolutely”.

The parliament’s closed-door policy isn’t a one-off. All subsequent sessions of the parliament will also be behind closed doors “unless stated otherwise”, says Asgardia spokesperson Yasmin Perez.

Ashurbeyli says he admires the constitutional monarchy of the UK. But in the UK any member of the public can walk into the Houses of Commons and Lords to see democracy in action, warts and all.

In his inauguration speech, the head of nation described his vision of Asgardia as “a reflection of humanity’s beautiful and ancient dream of a divine and peaceful land in Heaven… a place where there is no pain or hatred, just love and joy”.

They’re lovely words, but they hide an obvious truth. Whether anyone ever ends up living on Asgardia’s ambitious space ark is one thing – whether the reality matches the utopian ideal may be another.


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