To Infinity and Beyond….

 

On July 20, 1969, Neil A. Armstrong attached an American flag on the moon’s surface, an act representing a historic achievement that would change the world. As the Commander of Apollo 11, Mr. Armstrong commemorated the United State’s role in that epic feat with the famed declaration “ one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind…”, words that are likely to resonate forever.[1]

Just 40 years later, those “small steps” have indeed turned into gaping strides. Now, in 2011, the world is contemplating ownership, property rights and the colonization of the moon. The ongoing technological evolution has turned our “lunar hopes and dreams” into attainable prospective realities. As the “race to the moon” continues, so does the corresponding debate involving the social, political, and legal implications of that endeavor.

Environmental enthusiasts, scientists, universities, research departments, private entrepreneurs, businesses, and local and national governments, are all anxiously anticipating extraterrestrial expansion and ownership. Lunar territory has the potential of bringing great benefits to the world and providing critical solutions to the problem of our depleting resources. Scientists believe that “…asteroid resources could sustain trillions of people” and that “if we think we running out of resources we need to look up…”[2]

Among its many vast resources the lunar surface contains Helium-3.  Although it is rare and difficult to cultivate, Helium-3 has been characterized as a clean renewable energy that could be the perfect candidate for a “renewable energy source of the future”.[3] For billions of years, the moon, unprotected by an atmosphere, has been infiltrated with particles from the sun. As a result, an enormous amount of Helium-3 is now trapped in the moon’s soil. Helium-3 is unique because it can be transformed (by a complicated fusion process) into a fuel. The end product is described as “a form of power generation that’s like an uncontrolled hydrogen bomb explosion”. Many scientists believe that an enormous amount of Helium-3 is preserved in the moon’s outer layer, so much so, that it “could make the moon the next Persian Gulf”.[4]

Studies also indicate that the moon can support lunar construction from the mining of its dust, that it can provide paths for launching satellites for future space explorations, and that it can provide a sizeable land plot for solar power collectors on its surface.[5] In addition, NASA confirmed that the moon has an abundant natural water supply, a resource that would not only be useful for occupation of the moon, but one that would be lucrative to harvest and exploit water for our own environmental needs.[6]

The moon, comprised of both its vast and uncharted territory and its abounding supply of resources, has incited an international “race”. In this race, many public and private entities have embarked on a journey to attain coveted rights of “lunar stewardship”. After all, “the moon is just another continent across a different kind of sea” and as such it is expected to be a land overflowing with plentiful opportunities.[7]

Encouraging the lunar race, NASA has awarded grants to private firms aiming to reach the moon on their own initiative.[8] Google has offered a thirty million dollar price to the first firm that can land an unmanned craft on the moon by 2015.[9] In addition, foreign countries have also offered lunar incentives.[10] China, India, and Russia are all zealously preparing new programs and refining technologies in order to participate in this modern-day “race to the moon.”[11]

Indeed, some private groups and individuals have already claimed ownership in the moon and have also engaged in selling their “moon estates” through “lunar deeds”.[12] Dennis Hope, the head of Lunar Embassy Corporation, claimed ownership of parts of the moon on behalf of his company in 1980 and has subsequently sold one- acre plots of land on the moon to approximately 3.7 million people.[13]

 

A dream too high in the sky?

While efforts to sell property interests in the moon are imaginative, it is unclear whether ownership of the moon is founded in any legal authority? Are national governments and/or private individuals entitled to obtain ownership rights to the moon?

Many essential questions are now presented regarding the colonization of the moon.  The fundamental issue posed, however, is whether countries and governments can claim rights of ownership in the moon and whether private individuals and businesses can seek such ownership rights as well? Certainly, many impending legal dilemmas attach to this modern quest for ownership.

According to Space.com two prominent schools of thought exist. Many authorities promote space territory as the “common heritage of mankind” and believe that space territory should not be appropriated by any nation.[14] The United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was ratified by 98 nations, is based on this “common heritage” theory.[15] This 1967 Treaty states  “space is the province of all mankind” and is “not subject to claims of sovereignty by States.” An extension of this treaty exists in the agreement governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies also known as the Moon Treaty of 1979.[16] The Moon treaty, which was drafted and proposed in 1979, was ratified in 1984 by the requisite fourteen nations. However, none of the ratifying nations had a viable space program of its own, making the force and effectiveness of the treaty’s provisions highly dubious.[17]

Alternatively, supporters of the “Frontier paradigm” contend that space, as an entirely new “frontier,” should be available to individuals and not restricted to governmental entities.[18] This contention is premised on the principle that space exploration calls for individualism rather than collectivism and should be governed by traditional rules of property ownership. According to this paradigm, encouraging individuals to attain property in the lunar context will effectually benefit humankind at large.[19] The proponents of the Frontier position maintain that property rights are powerful tools that will provide the necessary catalyst for the development of the extraterrestrial realm. Virgiliu Pop, a specialist in space property rights and an advocate for the Frontier paradigm argues “Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th century United States. Space is indeed a new frontier calling for individualism rather than collectivism”.[20] Peter Kokh, president of the nonprofit Moon Society suggests that “a future in which people will be living on the moon and producing materials for solving Earth’s problems” is inevitable. Moreover, the process of colonizing and cultivating the moon’s challenging landscape will change the needs and wants of the society that settles there, just as the requirements of English colonists changed following their transition to the New World.[21]

What does the future hold? Should nations and individuals be prohibited from owning the moon based on the argument that the moon is a universal resource for all to enjoy? Contrarily, if there are to be ownership interests in the moon, what rules will govern that ownership? Should the legal adage “first I time, first in right” be applied, thereby giving the United States priority interest in the moon? Should interests in the moon be apportioned according to an ability index, thereby giving countries like China the larger property rights? Should partnerships and cooperative projects be instituted, thereby eliminating nationally based competition for moon ownership? Should the moon be entirely autonomous and therefore available for individual interests? These and a myriad of other related legal questions will have to be resolved as the race to the moon continues. What is clear, however, is that the “sky” is no longer the limit. Today, we look toward the moon and tomorrow we may look toward Mars.


[1] Dan Vergano, NASA prepares for moon tourism, USA TODAY (Nov. 9, 2011, 11:04PM), http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/story/2011-11-06/apollo-moon-space-tourism/51084312/1.

 

[2] Id.

[3] Victoria Jaggard, Who Owns the Moon? The Galactic Government v. the UN, National Geographic News, July 17, 2009, at 34.

 

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] JohnThomas Didymus, China could own the Moon by 2026, U.S. space entrepreneur warns, Digital Journal (Oct. 20, 2011), http://digitaljournal.com/article/313103.

 

[9] Dan Vergano, NASA prepares for moon tourism, USA TODAY (Nov. 9, 2011, 11:04PM), http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/story/2011-11-06/apollo-moon-space-tourism/51084312/1.

 

[10] Who Really Owns The Moon?, The Lunar Registry, http://www.lunarregistry.com/info/embassy.shtml (last visited Nov. 13, 2011).

 

[11] Who Really Owns The Moon?, The Lunar Registry, http://www.lunarregistry.com/info/embassy.shtml (last visited Nov. 13, 2011).

 

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] JohnThomas Didymus, China could own the Moon by 2026, U.S. space entrepreneur warns, Digital Journal (Oct. 20, 2011), http://digitaljournal.com/article/313103.

 

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Didymus, supra note 14.

[21] Id.

 

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