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.