Who Owns the Moon?

Within the next 10 years, the U.S., China, Israel, and a host of private companies plan to set up camp on the moon. So if and when they plant a flag, does that give them property rights?

A NASA working group hosted a discussion this week to ask: Who owns the moon? The answer, of course, is no one. The Outer Space Treaty, the international law signed by more than 100 countries, states that the moon and other celestial bodies are the province of all mankind. No doubt that would irk all of the people throughout the ages, like monks from the Middle Ages, who have tried to claim the moon was theirs.

But ownership is different from property rights. People who rent apartments, for example, don't own where they live, but they still hold rights. So with all of the upcoming missions to visit the moon and beyond, space industry thought leaders are seriously asking themselves how to deal with a potential land rush, cowboy-style.

"This is a very relevant discussion right now. We've got this wave of new lunar missions from around the world," said William Marshall, a scientist in the small-spacecraft office at NASA, but who spoke this week at an event hosted by NASA's CoLab, a collaborative public-private working group. He was speaking from his personal interest and not on behalf of the agency.

To be sure, the United States aims to send astronauts back to the moon by as early as 2015, in a mission that would include a long-term settlement. China and Israel, among others, are also working on lunar projects. And for the first time, several private groups are building spacecraft to land on the moon in an attempt to win millions of dollars in the Google Lunar X Prize. Some participants say that they plan to gain some property rights in the mission.

One of those people is Steve Durst, a director on the board of the International Lunar Observatory (ILO) and owner of the Space Age Publishing Co. He's linked to one of the Google Lunar competitors, Odyssey Moon, and he said during the talk that he hopes to scratch out his initials on one of the legs of a lunar rover and "claim his acre."

His group has calculated that there are about 10 billion acres on the moon, not counting crater slopes. Given that there are about 6.7 billion people on Earth, it aligns nicely with the idea of "I want my acre," he said.

The question is, he said: "How do you get activity going if the moon is owned by everyone at the same time?"

Durst has helped start the ILO in Hawaii to eventually put an astrophysical observatory on the moon that will generate power, communicate, and act as a property rights agent, he said. Durst gave a talk in China last week and he jokingly said that he skipped over the part about property rights.

Ultimately, he thinks it's about balancing the common good and free enterprise. "I'm happy to deed over half of my acre to a common acre pool. I see this as a way of reconciling a right of individual ownership and the idea that the moon belongs to the whole Earth."

The question of lunar rights also hit home when someone from Russia bought part of the Russian rover and then subsequently claimed that he owns a bit of lunar surface under its foot, according to Marshall. Land rights could also get tricky when it comes to coveted areas of the moon with "peaks of eternal light" that could be more valuable for research, he said.

"It's much easier to solve this problem by thinking it through and thinking through what would most benefit the best interest of humanity … rather than doing it once it's a mess," Marshall said.

So, he said, it comes down to assigning rights in the best interest of humanity, including ensuring no monopolies and no military installations.

Entities can apply for space in geostational orbit and receive a slot on a first come, first served basis, according to Marshall. That's an interesting model, he said, because it does that without granting ownership and allows access by less prosperous nations.

"In conclusion: Who owns on the moon? No one. Who should own the moon? No one. Does this stop property rights? No. The best way forward is probably some sort of property licensing body like how it works in geo," he said.

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