Who Owns the Moon?

GeekMom Travel
Image: Flickr user Slideshow Bruce, CC

So who exactly owns the moon? It is a question that has vexed me for  years. In light of the upcoming shuttle launch I found myself straying back to it more and more often. As a historian I have a pretty set definition of how a nation or country colonizes.  Historically, the Finders-Keepers rule applies: get there first and it is all yours. In the history of space exploration a total of twelve men (yes, just men) have stepped foot on the moon and they have all been American. An American flag is planted on the surface of the moon. And everyone knows that once that flag is planted, ownership is claimed. At least that’s how it works in WOW. So that must mean that the United States of America owns the moon, right?

A Nevada man, Dennis Hope, seems to believe this as well. Under the assumption that the US laid claim to lunar real estate, he petitioned the UN to be allowed to create a government on the moon. Of course it would be run in absentia. When the UN didn’t respond, he assumed he had every right to the moon and its land. He formed a company and began selling deeds to lunar property for less than $30 USD per acre. The US owned the moon, he had the rights to administer its government. And with that much land, every self-respecting government would, of course, begin selling it off. Now to come up with a solid system of taxation…

It’s a logical assumption perhaps, albeit a wrong one. Actually no one owns the moon and no one can. The UN did not respond because what Mr. Hope petitioned had already been decided against.  Long before anyone managed to get a human to the moon, several measures were put in place to protect the sanctity of space (and property) beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Pardon the pun.

In January 1967, a mere 2 years before the US managed to land Apollo 11 on the moon, the United Nations had drafted and approved the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Three depository Governments, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the (now) Russian Federation signed this. It outlines some basic laws regarding space and the moon.

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

The treaty was put into full effect in October of 1967 and stands in effect today. Since then every space-faring nation and many others have signed and ratified the treaty, therefore agreeing to all stipulations.

Technically an extension of this treaty exists in the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. It was drafted and proposed in 1979 and ratified by the requisite 14 nations in 1984. However, none of the nations that ratified it has a space program to speak of. They’ve produced astronauts but do not actively work on programs that put those astronauts into space, or even low-earth orbit. This means, roughly, that the treaty is failed and defunct. The countries it would apply to never signed it, so it kind of doesn’t count.

It should be noted that these laws apply to the International Space Station as well. Being that it resides in space, all of the UN’s treaty conditions apply. (I use the word “space” in its loosest term. For NASA’s definition of where space begins, check out their video.) So as Atlantis launches for the last time, it enters protected territory to do peaceful works designed to benefit all mankind.

And no one owns the moon.

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11 thoughts on “Who Owns the Moon?

  1. The Space treaty is one of the dumbest things we’ve ever engaged in agreeing on. Because now commercial space flight and exploration is never going to be successful. Commercial companies need to make a profit to survive. It is illegal to make money off of space. We can’t mine for minerals , etc. We can’t make a profit off of space. Yes technically you can say that we already have with spin off but nothing directly from space can ever make a profit until the Space Treaty is revised or what ever it is that they do to disband treaties. ( Sorry I’m a space geek and am pretty passionate about this issue)

    1. Nowhere in there does it say it’s illegal to make money off space. *Countries* can’t claim ownership of anything in space; that doesn’t mean resources in space can’t be used.

      As I understand it, America can’t say, “we own the moon, we got there first.” But if we build a moon base, we own that base, because we built it. But we don’t own the front yard; that belongs to humanity.

      Likewise, if my company wants to mine an asteroid, there’s nothing to stop me from pursuing that as a money-making venture. But there is something to stop China from saying “that’s our asteroid! Hands off!”

    2. Agreed, it needs to be revised to make it clearer. To be fair, at the time it was written, people likely didn’t believe we’d ever really get anywhere with Space exploration, and just wrote the treaty as a fallback “what if”.
      As for the treaty itself, with the whole “good for humanity” vibe, it’s definitely how things should be, in a perfect world. In that world, Capitalism is gone, and everything is done, literally, for the good of humanity.
      For all you anti-socialites out there, I’m not advocating Communism, so don’t bring JE Hoover down on me, I’m just saying that in a perfect world, all people would have everything they needed to fulfill at least the first tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy. In that kind of world, money would server no purpose, as everything we did would be to serve the community.
      Not that the “perfect world” exists anywhere in the near future…

  2. What pun? You say “pardon the pun” but I fail to see a pun. Did I miss something?

    Also, I believe this treaty will be defunct by default whenever space flight and travel routinely makes it out of the upper atmosphere. No one plays nice when acquiring new territory. Case in point: everyone that lost when European explorers found Native American land and decided to keep it. Europe didn’t care about the rightful claim of those who had been living on the land for millennia, and I doubt that when it becomes easy to get there, no one will care about an arbitrary treaty protecting the moon or any other galactic land mass either.

  3. “Historically, the Finders-Keepers rule applies: get there first and it is all yours.”

    Actually that never applies. The “indians” were the first at the americas and they lost it to the spanish. Then the spanish lost to french, dutch, portuguese and english.

    It’s only yours if you can keep it.

  4. I interviewed Dennis Hope way back when, and he was perfectly aware of all the info you just put forward; in fact, the 1967 UN resolution was what allowed him to go ahead with his claim, as nowhere does it say that a person could not own property on the Moon, and the Treaty made it clear the US could NOT have laid claim to it. It was this loop-hole that gave Hope the idea to log his claim with the US, the UN and the Russians, who then had a couple of years to contest his claim (according to earlier internationally ratified land-claim guide-lines). When they didn’t, he went ahead with the sales.

    Now, I’m not suggesting his deeds would hold up in court; just that the info you dug up wasn’t new to him or his customers.

  5. I don’t care who builds on the moon, as long as /something/ up there is named for D. D. Harriman. I’d like to think that those “efforts” were at least partly responsible for the content and wording of the UN treaty.

  6. Surprised that no-one has mentioned Robert Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. It was a long time ago I read it, but the idea was that if you own the airspace above your property and everythign in it, then you can buy the moon by buying a sufficiently wide strip of property around the equator.

    Haven’t checked the dates, but I’m guessing it was before ’67.

    Tom

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