Got 20 bucks? You could own a piece of the Moon–or, at any rate, you could own a piece of paper telling you that you own a piece of the Moon. If that's too close to home, you can opt to buy property on Mars, Venus, Mercury, Io, or Pluto. The Lunar Embassy, owned and run by entrepreneur Dennis Hope, is able to sell shares in these important resources because Hope has declared himself to be the owner of several parts of outer space. So far, no one has formally challenged him.
It's a surprisingly popular business plan. Although the United Nations' 1967 Outer Space Treaty specifies that the space speculations of “non-governmental entities” need to be regulated by a member state, before this treaty took effect–and, indeed, before humans had even landed on the Moon–there was a vogue for declaring yourself master of space and landlord of lunar property. Some putative owners have sold shares, while others have kept the whole thing for themselves, but regardless, over the course of history the Moon has served dozens of masters.
Though Hope is not the only person claiming some right to the Moon, he's the only person selling off chunks of it right now. He has been selling lunar real estate full-time since 1995. In 2013, he declared that the Lunar Embassy had sold 611 million of the moon's nine billion acres. The company has also parceled out 325 million acres on Mars and 125 million acres on Venus, Io, and Mercury combined. At $20 a pop, that's could be a gross income of more than two billion dollars if Hope's numbers are accurate. (Lunar Embassy land is slightly cheaper per acre if you buy a lot of it at once; it's even possible to buy a “continent-sized” piece of property, more than five million acres, for about 13 million dollars.)
Hope's explanation for why he can sell land he never bought is that, essentially, nobody told him he couldn't. He says he wrote to the United Nations in 1980, telling the august body that he was declaring himself owner of the Moon and several planets unless they came up with a good reason why he wasn't allowed. Unsurprisingly, they never wrote back. Hope believes that the Outer Space Treaty doesn't apply to individuals, and so his claim on the territory is kosher. In fact, the treaty states that “the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty,” and the 1979 Moon Agreement says explicitly that no part of the Moon “shall become property of … any natural person.” But the United States has not ratified the Moon Agreement, and neither has any spacefaring nation.
Even if there weren't any legal reasons why a person couldn't own the Moon, Hope might have a problem–because he wasn't the first to lay claim to it. The Jürgens family of Germany may have the oldest claim; they say the Moon has been family property since 1756, when the emperor of Prussia awarded the satellite to the Jürgens patriarch as a gesture of gratitude and stipulated that it would be passed on to his sons. But there have been many challenges to the Jürgens' ownership in the ensuing 250 years.
In 1936, a man named A. Dean Lindsay claimed not only the Moon but all celestial objects, registering them with the Irwin County courthouse in Ocilla, Georgia. In 1949, a public relations worker and self-help author named James T. Mangan laid claim to everything Lindsay had not: the actual space part of outer space. Mangan wrote to the secretaries of state of 74 nations to announce that he was forming the Nation of Celestial Space, or Celestia, which would encompass all of space outside of Earth. Eleven of those nations “informally recognized” Celestia, according to Mangan, including Ecuador, Ireland, Cuba, Norway, the UK, the USSR, and the United States of America. Mangan planned to sell Earth-sized portions of his new territory–which would be a tax-free democracy–for a dollar each, obscenely cheap even by 1949 standards.
In 1952, however, a group of elves and gnomes conspired to snatch the sky right out of Mangan's and Lindsay's hands. They weren't real elves and gnomes–we're talking about selling the Moon here, not fantasy. But a Berkeley science fiction club called the Elves', Gnomes', and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder, and Marching Society sent letters to then-president Harry Truman and U.N. legal department director Oscar Schachter, informing these officials that the club was now the owner of a triangular chunk of the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. The society requested that the U.N. issue it a patent and title to the land.
The claim, which was meant as a publicity stunt, succeeded beyond expectations, and the pranksters got so much attention from the international press that Schachter actually responded to their demands–although only to say that the U.N. didn't have jurisdiction to issue such a title. The club never got a response from Harry Truman, but they did get an offer from a previous Moon claimant. Inventor Alexander Victor informed the Little Men that he already owned the Moon, but would sell them the 1.5-billion acre part they wanted for a mere $1,000 per acre.
But Victor himself had his claim challenged by the Tenth Anniversary Science Fiction Convention, which in 1952 handed out cards to attendees entitling them to ownership of a specific crater on the Moon. Luminaries and laypeople alike were assigned lunar property; Arthur C. Clarke got the Grimaldi crater, for instance, and Ray Bradbury was given Campanus. The TASFIC organizers' Lunar Land Commission acknowledged that the convention didn't technically own the Moon, but felt that science fiction enthusiasts had a right to claim “various parts of the universe”–and as TASFIC represented more sci-fi fans than the Little Men, its claim was supreme. (In 1970, the New England Science Fiction Society would also assert its ownership rights to the satellite.) As for Victor, the Commission found it “presumptuous and ridiculous” for a single person to assert that he owned the obviously public Moon.
The next year, in 1953, a Chilean lawyer and poet named Jenaro Gajardo Vera did exactly that ridiculous thing. He registered a title deed to the Moon and published three announcements of the filing in Chilean media, as required by the office in charge of registering real estate claims. Gajardo's purpose was twofold: to make a “poetic gesture,” and to prove he owned property so he could join a prestigious social club. He received an official document asserting his ownership, and urban legend held (falsely) that Richard Nixon was forced to approach Gajardo for permission for the Apollo 11 astronauts to land on the Moon. Gajardo reportedly left the Moon to the people of Chile when he died in 1998.
In 1955, two years after Gajardo first made his claim, former Hayden Planetarium director Robert Coles started the Interplanetary Development Corporation, a lunar real estate company, which sold parcels of the Moon for a dollar. As a justification, he said that nobody had yet come forward to claim that land (which by this point was clearly false). Your dollar bought you a one-acre plot in the Copernicus crater, plus an informational booklet, a map showing the location of their part of the Moon, and a guide to spotting their property with a telescope. In addition, buyers were granted the mineral rights to anything mined from their plot (a serious proposition, since the Moon may in fact have useful mineral deposits), beach and fishing rights in the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Nectar, and the right to participate in winter sports on the Lunar Alps (all of which point to the fact that, as Coles confirmed, the whole endeavor was tongue-in-cheek). The company quickly racked up 4,500 customers.
Most buyers seemed to be in on the joke. One Swiss customer said he was planning to build a Swiss cheese factory on the Moon; another man said that his purchase of five acres was contingent on the land being flat enough to park his car. A Baltimore restaurant owner named James Margaritis bought five acres for the benefit of Baltimore's citizens, and presented the deed to the mayor. If Coles' authority to sell the Moon hadn't been challenged, the city of Baltimore might still own a piece.
But it was challenged, by a Miami Beach company called the Lunar Fantasy Corporation, which was undercutting Coles' prices: 100 acres for $1. (It's easy to keep overhead costs down when your right to a particular property is based on imagining that you own it.) Harry Hall of LFC said that he and his wife Eleanor had owned the entire Moon since 1954, and that IDC was claim-jumping. A group of kids from Sunny Slope, Arizona also disputed Coles' rights, saying that they had filed a claim for 1,100,000 acres of the Moon in their local courthouse the previous year (around the same time Harry Hall was declaring that he owned the satellite).
The most serious challenge came from the New York district attorney's office, which investigated IDC for fraud. It was all well and good to say that the scheme was just for fun, the DA's office said, but if anyone was taking their Moon ownership seriously, it still qualified as victimization. (Some of IDC's 4,500 customers did indeed take it seriously; one man, for instance, tried to have his property recorded by the county auditor, who gently told him that he would need to speak to the county auditor on the Moon.) Coles countered by saying that his project was not only lighthearted, it was also educational. “It's all humorous,” he told a journalist, “except for one thing–we're interested in promoting people's knowledge about the Moon, and their whole cosmic environment.”
Coles eventually stopped selling lunar property, so he didn't put up a fight in 1966 when the city of Geneva, Ohio drafted a declaration that would “lay definitive and prior claim to the entire physical mass and any and all aura, aspect, imaginative or otherwise, of the Moon.” The document stipulated that 100 moon lots would be available at 100 acres for $100, provided each sale had the approval of two thirds of the Geneva population. Three years later, a man in Brazil was arrested for selling $25 lots; in his plea, the man said that his first customers had been Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and that their recent Moon expedition had been for the purpose of inspecting their property.
So who's the real owner of the Moon? The Jürgens, because they were first? Dennis Hope, because he's the one actively selling it? “The law is actually silent on this,” says Dennis Burnett, a board member of the International Institute of Space Law. Whether the Outer Space Treaty has a loophole where it doesn't apply to individuals, as Hope claims, is the wrong question, according to Burnett: “Treaties are between nations; they never apply to individuals,” he says. “The question would be, is there any law that would prevent him from doing what he wanted to do? And the answer is no. But there's no law allowing him to do it either.”
That doesn't mean that Hope's claim is valid, or that it's legal for him to sell lunar property (although Burnett notes, “I'm not an expert on fraud”). It just means there's no explicit law preventing him from saying he's the owner of the Moon. That claim is unenforceable, though, which means it's essentially vacuous. “If he says that nothing prevents him from doing so, that may be true,” says Burnett. “But how's he going to enforce it? Certainly the United States would not enforce his claim, and I doubt that any other nation would recognize any such claim, because it would be contrary to the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.”
That's equally true of claims that predated the treaty, though. “It doesn't matter whether the claim was made before or after the Outer Space Treaty,” Burnett told me. “Under what law did they make that claim? Anybody can assert anything, that doesn't mean it's true.”
Virgiliu Pop, a lawyer focusing on extraterrestrial property rights, adds that all these Moon claims are by definition invalid because none of these people have set foot on the Moon. “In the acquisition of possession, two concurrent elements–'the mind' and 'the body' are required,” he wrote in an article published in the journal Space Policy. “One is insufficient without the other.” If you want to go with fancy legal terminology, the intent to possess is animus possidendi (“animus” is mind or spirit) and the physical acquisition is corpus possidendi (“corpus” is body). In other words, it's not good enough to merely intend to take possession of a piece of land; you also have to actually, you know, do it. “Dennis Hope cannot own the Moon just because he wants to,” writes Pop. “He lacks the second element required in the acquisition of possession, namely the 'corpus possidendi'; without an act of a physical nature giving effect to the intention to take the thing, animus is insufficient.”
That's true for all supposed Moon owners, all the way back to the Jürgens. “Even at that time a corpus was necessary in addition to animus,” says Pop. “No traces of Prussian boots have been found in the lunar dust to serve as proof of corpus.”
In the future, when Moon travel becomes as trivial as an intercontinental flight, or even if Hope succeeds in putting signed ownership documents on the surface of the Moon as planned, the provisions and possible loopholes of the Outer Space Treaty will be relevant–although Pop still believes that it will prohibit private citizens from claiming control of the Moon, since those claims would have to be recognized by a terrestrial government, which is explicitly not allowed.
Still, if you have an outer space lover on your holiday gift list, there are worse $20 presents than a certificate claiming they own a piece of the Moon. It's not strictly legal, but it's not really illegal either–and they'd be joining a long, storied line of lunar landowners.