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Techly Explains: Who owns the moon?

Unless you are a conspiracy theorist, you accept that on July 20, 1969, we put men on the moon.

According to NASA, at 10:56pm (EDT), Neil Armstrong climbed down from the lunar module and uttered those famous words. Along with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (who was second on the moon, but won the real pissing contest), Armstrong spent the next two and a half hours collecting samples and taking photographs.

Before leaving, the two proudly stuck an American flag into the ground. Were they staking a claim to the dusty rock? No, and it wouldn’t have been possible anyway. Just two years earlier, a treaty had been created to prohibit any nation owning the moon.

On January 27, 1967, more than 60 countries – including Cold War foes the USA and Russia – signed the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty declared that the moon and other “celestial bodies” were “the province of mankind”. Since then, the treaty has been ratified by a total of 102 countries, including all major space-faring nations.

So pretty much all countries have agreed to hold off on claiming the moon. But what about private citizens?

Well, plenty of people have had a crack at it, and you can’t blame them for trying.

According to How Stuff Works, Martin Juergens of Germany believed that his family had owned the moon since Prussian monarch Frederick the Great bequeathed it to them in the 18th century. No paperwork has been found to corroborate any of this, but wow, cool story bro.

Then there is James T. Mangan, who appeared in The Chicago Tribune on September 21, 1958, claiming to own not just the moon, but all of “celestial space”. Why? Because he said so! And you have to applaud the guy, because he even went to the trouble of making “moon passports”.

Best of all is Dennis Hope, an American entrepreneur who says he has owned the moon since 1980.

In an interview with Vice, Hope said:

I started in 1980 when I was going through a divorce. I was out of money and thought maybe I could make some if I owned some property, then I looked out the window, saw the moon, and thought, Hey, there’s a load of property! So I went to the library, looked up the 1968 Outer Space Treaty and, sure enough, Article 2 states: “No nation by appropriation shall have sovereignty or control over any of the satellite bodies.” Meaning it was unowned land.

Hope then filed a claim with the UN for ownership of the moon. They never responded, and since Hope has never been challenged, he maintains that the moon is his to sell.

Before you laugh, consider that Hope has been in space real estate full time since 1995 and says he has sold 611 million acres of land on the moon, 325 million acres on Mars, and a combined 125 million acres of Venus, Io and Mercury.

On Hope’s website, Lunar Embassy, you’ll find that an acre of planetary land goes for $USD 25. If Hope’s numbers are real, he would surely be a very rich man by now. Perhaps we should take what he says with a grain of salt since he clearly has quite an imagination.

Four years after Hope made his grab for the moon, the UN finalised an international Moon Treaty, which forbids private ownership of extraterrestrial real estate. However, so far only 16 countries – including Australia – have signed.

That would seem to rule Aussies out of the space real estate game, but it might not matter much anyway. The Moon Treaty is non-binding and none of the Big Three (the US, Russia or China) have signed it.

Assigning and defending ownership of celestial objects is a tricky one. For example, even if you can’t legally own the moon, it looks like there is nothing stopping you from claiming “enterprise rights” which would allow you to drill the moon for any resources it may have.

While that may not matter much now, things could change soon. Recent reports from NASA and Elon Musk’s Space X suggest that we are about to embark on a new era of space exploration.

When we do, we are going to have to figure out a much more watertight system for handling legal issues in space.

Years of solar radiation have faded the once red, white and blue flag that Armstrong planted. It is now completely blank, symbolic of the legal limbo that the moon and other celestial bodies are in.

To answer the question, no one owns the moon, but the laws surrounding its ownership are still very murky.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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