Stupid Question ™
May 13, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Does anyone own the Moon, or have territorial rights to it?
A: Well, not yet.
For about $26, an online firm called the Lunar Embassy will sell you 1,777.58 acres of lunar real estate.
It’s sheer lunacy, since under international law no one can own the Moon.
However, arguments for private ownership are far from over, and will ensure nice fees for the next millennium’s space lawyers.
Worried by the possibility for war in space, the United Nations began passing resolutions against Moon ownership in 1961. The concerns culminated in 1967’s so-called Outer Space Treaty, which among other things said the Moon and other celestial bodies are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” It further mandated that the Moon be free and open to anyone.
The Outer Space Treaty is more a space constitution than a body of law, but it’s now backed up by custom. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, he called it a “giant leap for mankind,” not for the USA.
However, while the Outer Space Treaty barred governments from recognizing claims to Moon resources still in the ground, it implicitly allowed private ownership of resources after they’d been removed. For example, while astronauts can’t claim ownership of the Moon, the rocks they bring home can be sold at auction.
Likewise, if a private company discovered a giant gold nugget on the Moon, it couldn’t claim the land, but it could go get the nugget and bring it home.
The UN tried to close this loophole with the so-called Moon Treaty of 1979, which barred private ownership of extraterrestrial resources, declaring them the “common heritage of mankind” and establishing a “regime” that would oversee exploitation and divvy up profits between all countries.
All space-faring countries, including the US, refused to sign on. The US specifically didn’t want to discourage private companies from participating in Moon exploitation.
And as the cost of rocketry drops, private companies are becoming more interested. LunaCorp of Virginia plans to land a rover on the Moon in July 2002. Other companies plan to mine asteroids.
Lawrence Roberts is chair of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Aerospace Law and director of the pro-space-development Archimedes Institute. He said that there are no current claims to extraterrestrial real estate—the Lunar Embassy included—that would stand up in court.
But that’s probably a temporary situation. Roberts argues an international commission should be established to set up a regulated private-property system for space real estate—both to encourage corporate exploitation and to discourage a destructive Gold Rush-style free-for-all in the future.