Who owns the Moon? Well, technically no one, but interesting times lie ahead in terms of potential commercial and private property claims to the lunar surface. According to internal documents obtained by Politico, President Trump and his administration is investigating, what they are calling, "the large-scale economic development of space."
The ambitious plans for commercially exploring space outlined in the documents propose potential new moon landings within the next three years as well as, "private lunar landers staking out de facto 'property rights' for American on the Moon, by 2020."
The Outer Space Treaty
The reference to "property rights" in the Trump administration documents raises the long-standing thorny issue of whether anyone could viably stake a land claim on the Moon.
The Outer Space Treaty, developed in 1967, and currently signed and ratified by the majority of nations on the globe, outlines the general legal framework for modern international space law.
In reference to the Moon, the Treaty states that it, "is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." The Outer Space Treaty problematically left plenty of room for alternative lunar appropriations and led to a more comprehensive agreement developed in 1979 entitled the Moon Treaty. This was a much more specific set of guidelines that banned any commercial or private ownership over celestial bodies as well as also banning military uses of such bodies.
This follow-up treaty was not as well-liked by the international community, and by 2016 it had only been ratified by 17 nations, notably none of which have major spacefaring activities. So while most of the international community is seemingly in agreement that the Moon cannot be claimed as sovereign by a nation-state, there is still a degree of fair game for individuals and corporate entities to plant their flags.
While property rights on the Moon sit in a legally blurry area, the rights to exploit or mine materials is a whole different ball game. As private interest in space exploration has expanded over the past decade and the US government updated its commercial space legislation in late 2015 to allow for the exploitation of "space resources."
The legislation entitled Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (or SPACE) Act explicitly allows for US citizens to commercially explore and gather off-Earth resources. The act was as much directed at the burgeoning commercial sector interested in asteroid mining as it was the Moon, but some legal scholars expressed skepticism at whether the United States even had the power to enact such a legislation.
If a nation state cannot make a sovereign claim over celestial objects according to the Outer Space Treaty, then it may not have a legal right to extend an allowance to private entities to gather those space resources.
This returns us to a Wild West scenario where the universe is up for grabs. It's just a question of who can get there first. Unless of course, someone already owns the Moon...
The Moon is mine
Individuals have been making claims to ownership of parts of the Moon for many years, from a German pensioner who claims that his family was bestowed the Moon by a proclamation from a 17th century Prussian king, to James Mangan from Chicago, who in 1949 laid claim to the entirety of outer space by founding the Nation of Celestial Space, a nation-state that encompassed literally everything that wasn't the planet Earth.
In fact, there have been so many weird and wacky claims to Moon ownership over time that author Virgiliu Pop compiled an entire book on the subject entitled, Unreal Estate: The Men who Sold the Moon.
Perhaps the most profitable Moon-seller in history has been American entrepreneur Dennis Hope, who has been selling plots of land on the Moon since 1980. After perusing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, Hope discovered that there was no obvious legal hurdle to claiming the Moon as his property, so he filed a claim of ownership with the United Nations.
Hope interpreted the UN's lack of response to his claim as a tacit form of approval and began selling plots of land on the lunar surface.
Over the last 35 years, Hope has sold thousands of parcels of Moon real estate to customers allegedly including former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, as well as scores of large corporations, including the Hilton and Marriott hotel chains. It's estimated that Hope has generated over US$10 million dollars from his Moon sales.
The Moon (copyright)
As private companies, such as Moon Express, race to the Moon with an eye on its resources we are well and truly into a new, 21st century space race. This time, though, it's not guided by governments or nation-states, but rather commercial private entities that intrinsically will be demanding a return on their investment.
As President Trump gears up to announce a public policy direction for the United States' off-Earth activities, an intention to explore the economic potential of the Moon will not at all be a surprise. His intention to run the country like a business is clearly reiterated in the documents outlining his NASA plans. For good or ill, there is a strong possibility that over the next few years the world will finally grapple with the issue of private off-Earth property rights.
So who owns the Moon? No one… yet.