Space

Trump, the lunar economy, and who owns the Moon?

Trump, the lunar economy, and ...
Buzz Aldrin planting a US flag on the Moon – for purely symbolic purposes of course
Buzz Aldrin planting a US flag on the Moon – for purely symbolic purposes of course
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Moon Express envision a mule-faceted lander system that can explore and mine certain parts of the Moon
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Moon Express envision a mule-faceted lander system that can explore and mine certain parts of the Moon
Buzz Aldrin planting a US flag on the Moon – for purely symbolic purposes of course
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Buzz Aldrin planting a US flag on the Moon – for purely symbolic purposes of course
A hypothetical Moon base - insert corporate signage as you see fit
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A hypothetical Moon base - insert corporate signage as you see fit
A deed to property on the Moon as served by Dennis Hope's Lunar Embassy
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A deed to property on the Moon as served by Dennis Hope's Lunar Embassy

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."

A hypothetical Moon base - insert corporate signage as you see fit
A hypothetical Moon base - insert corporate signage as you see fit

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.

Space mining

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...

A deed to property on the Moon as served by Dennis Hope's Lunar Embassy
A deed to property on the Moon as served by Dennis Hope's Lunar Embassy

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.

Moon Express envision a mule-faceted lander system that can explore and mine certain parts of the Moon
Moon Express envision a mule-faceted lander system that can explore and mine certain parts of the Moon

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.

13 comments
AlistairBrice
Haha the thing with owning something is that you have to back it up with some sort of punishment if someone where to take it from you
EdwardEvans
I agree with AlistairBrice. If history is a guide then one may stake a claim to territory but at the end of the day, whomsoever controls said territory through economic, diplomatic or militaristic means is the prevailing "owner" of said territory.
PeejayJuggles
Silly humans and their need to own everything.
PAV
Ownership is not a natural order, it is simply an agreement, one says "I own this" and it takes another to believe that in order to make it so.
John Birk
We evolved as a cooperate species of hunter-gatherers and this system has enabled us to rise to great heights. However if we stop being cooperative, not only amongst ourselves but with the ecosystem within we exist, this system will collapse and we may well suffer extinction. So perhaps the place to look for a fair legal system it might be wise to look to our roots as hunter-gatherers, which shaped our neurological makeup as well as our deep psychological instincts. Remember we evolved in small groups of up to about 150 individuals, a tyrannical leader could be easily disposed of, this effect has been observed also amongst primates like Capuchin and other monkeys. When agriculture enabled larger populations it also allowed the rise tyrants and their henchmen to exploit others through intimidation and then these tyrants had the gall to claim themselves to be anointed by Gods to be the noble, kings, emperors, lords, etc. It's time to have a discussion about what will enable a more egalitarian future, Communism didn't work and unbridled capitalism has it's own inherent flaws of increasing wealth to the few at the expense of the many. If you are interested in learning more you may find this banned TED Talk by billionaire Nick Hanauer interesting and informative; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKCvf8E7V1g Scientia Non Domus, (Knowledge has No Home) antiguajohn
Robert in Vancouver
John Birck - You say "unbridled capitalism" is a problem? It might be if it existed. But it doesn't. Every capitalist country has hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations that control and direct companies, business activities, and capitalism in general. Right down the micro-managing level.
JimRohrich
Completely fine with the U.S. economically developing the solar system to it's advantage. If another nation doesn't like that, then they can go to space and have at it.
Cynthia Gurin
What do you suppose will happen when somebody finally tells these greedy clowns that what they're doing ia akin to little kids sitting in their tree fort and deciding who wants to keep what part of Texas. They've never been there. They've seen westerns on TV, it looks empty, so they've decided to claim it for their own. Fellas, I'm afraid you might be in for a surprise.
StephenEarleDiamond
The right thing to do, about buying, noting a survey, properly describing the same, and registering title - in a recognized and reasonable way, in a wise to distinguish the said real property, albeit real estate property, from each and every other kind of real property is and remains the protocol to follow, which has been gradually developed and perfected since ancient antiquity. However to hold, keep and defend the same does require a modicum of civilized co-operation, and not the least humane behavior. With a view to preserve the right of Liberty, Independence, and Freedom earned, gained, and won upon this Planet Earth, as well, as when brought to the instance of each other distinct, and clear celestial body identified, and knowable albeit.
Tom Billings
The author, and every commenter, seems to be skipping the real implications of the 2015 interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty, as laid out in the 2015 S.P.A.C.E. Act. The key is treating Space, and all the bodies in Space, like we treat the Oceans beyond the 200 kilometer Economic Zones of the Law of the Sea Treaty. Today, I can go 1,000 kilometers West of the Portland Metro area in a fishing boat, catch whatever fish I can catch, and bring them back a few days later to the dock in Portland. By that evening people can have bought and begun eating those fish, with some of the proceeds going into my pocket. I can never own the place in the Ocean I caught those fish! I can never forbid others from fishing there! Likewise, the 2015 S.P.A.C.E. Act simply allows miners to go to any body in Space, scrape whatever they can off the surface, and then deliver the water, the native metal bits, the carbonaceous kerogens, and anything else of value, to a space manufacturing center at, for example, the earth/Moon Libration Point #1, in between the earth and the Moon. They will have *no* more right to keep anyone else from setting up mining on the same moon, asteroid, or whatever, as long as their own equipment isn't fowled by the newcomers. Neither the author nor the commenters seem to understand this aspect of harvest *without*ownership* is extremely old law, and well-known. It is *far* from impossible, having been followed on the sea for thousands of years. The only thing it does *not* help with is the grief of those who desire to control through political allocation all the wealth available to human society, through government regulations. The 2015 S.P.A.C.E. Act allows the *best* definition of the industrial revolution to guide us, ....the one in 1884, by Arnold Toynbee: "When a society moves from allocating resource use by custom and tradition (read here, politics) to allocating resource use by markets, it may be said to have undergone an industrial revolution." No the Fredrich Engels definition of Industrial Revolution as the presence of 'magic hunks of stuff', like steam engines, railroads, and mass production lines, doesn't inform us us nearly so much about epochal industrial changes in human patterns of behavior, on the Earth, on the Seas, or in Space, as does Toynbee's definition.