Who owns the moon? It's 'complicated,' say experts
Debate heats up as companies plan to go to the moon
The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty says no government can claim the moon. The 1979 UN Moon Agreement says lunar resources "common heritage of mankind". Companies and countries, including the US and Russia, plan lunar trips. We trim and append this 2008 article from CNN of May 19.
by Lara FarrarFrancis Williams, the "Lunar Ambassador to the United Kingdom," and his wife Sue owns MoonEstates. He claims to have sold around 300,000 acres of moon land. One-acre plots of lunar turf go for about $40.
Williams received his license to sell lunar land in the UK from Dennis Hope. In 1980, the Nevada-based entrepreneur claimed ownership of the moon after finding what he calls a loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which forbids countries from owning the moon but, according to Hope, does not forbid individuals from owning it.
Hope estimates he has sold over 500 million acres of moon land. While the UN may ignore Hope's claims, it is unlikely the organization will be able ignore a question of increasing importance: Who, exactly, does own the moon?
Paul Dempsey, director of the Institute of Air and Space Law and McGill University in Montreal, pointed out that at the time the UN drafted the Outer Space Treaty, there were only two spacefaring nations -- the US and the Soviet Union. Now there are over a dozen. And many of them, including China, Russia, the US, India, and Japan, want to go to the moon.
NASA, for example, recently announced plans to return by 2020, eventually building a permanent base on the lunar surface. The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, has confirmed similar intentions.
The burgeoning commercial space sector is also casting its gaze towards Earth's only natural satellite with companies considering everything from mining the lunar surface to building extraterrestrial resorts on it.
There are five treaties that govern international affairs in space, said Hedman. Two of them -- the Outerspace Treaty and the 1979 Moon Agreement -- deal with lunar law.
The Outer Space Treaty provides a legal framework for the international use of space for peaceful purposes, including the moon and other celestial bodies. Widely considered the "Magna Carta of space law," this treaty lays down the fundamental principle of non-appropriation and that the exploration and use of space shall be the province of all mankind.
According to the treaty, states bear international responsibility for national activities in space, including by non-governmental entities. The Outer Space Treaty says governments cannot claim ownership of the lunar surface and that stations and installations on the moon shall be open to others.
The Moon Agreement builds upon the Outer Space Treaty but also says that any natural resources found on the moon are part of "the common heritage of mankind" - in other words, they must be shared.
While 98 nations, including all the major spacefaring ones, have ratified the Outerspace Treaty, only 13 countries have approved the Moon Agreement -- Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Uruguay and Mexico, to name four.
Niklas Hedman, chief of the Committee Services and Research Section of the UN's Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, said this does not mean the other 179 countries that have not ratified the Moon Agreement are free to make a lunar land rush.
"They are still bound by the fundamental provisions [of the Outer Space Treaty]," he said, adding that "when enough states of the world have ratified a treaty, and it becomes binding, then certain fundamental provisions become binding even on states that have not ratified it."
Henry Hertzfeld, a space analyst at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said he is not so sure the UN's treaties provide an adequate answer to the question of lunar property rights.
"These treaties don't really have any teeth to them in terms of enforcement," said Hertzfeld. "They are agreements on principle."
Instead of focusing on who owns the moon, the international community needs to find ways to incentivize future business activity on the moon by guaranteeing that rights to land and resources will not be preempted by competing interests, said Hertzfeld.
JJS: Same thing on Earth. What really matters is who gets the “rent”, the payment for a location. The American people own millions of acres of public land that private corporations treat as their private fiefdom. Meanwhile, millions are paying mortgages for private homes plus sites from which they can be foreclosed and evicted.
What would keep people secure on their land plus preclude a speculative land rush -- on Earth or the moon -- is for all owners to pay rent into the public treasury and the citizenry get back equitable shares as a periodic dividend. Investors would still seek the best locations, but their earnings would come from their improvements to the parcels, not from the socially generated value of the site. Sharing that natural value should cure humanity of its speculative fever and give us all security in land.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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