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FAQ #3: What does international law say about private property ownership in space?

Early in the negotiations for the 1967 "Treaty On Principles Governing The Activities Of States In the Exploration And Use Of Outer Space, Including The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies", generally called the Outer Space Treaty, the USSR suggested that the treaty ban private activities in space but, at the insistence of the Americans, all such provisions were dropped from the final treaty. According to the New York Times report of the U.S. Senate ratification hearings for the Treaty, (March 7, 1967) Senator Albert Gore (Senior) worried that the "benefit of all" provisions of Article 1 of the treaty might inhibit space activities. The Times says Arthur Goldberg, who negotiated the treaty for the U.S., reassured Gore by describing "the article as a 'broad general declaration of purposes' that would have no specific impact until its intent was detailed in subsequent, detailed agreements."

The one serious attempt to establish such a follow-up agreement was a disaster that the U.S. Senate refused to ratify, specifically because it attempted to ban private property. It was the 1979 "Agreement On The Activities Of States On The Moon And Other Celestial Bodies" generally referred to as "The Moon Treaty". It would have replaced the "benefit of all mankind" language with the drastically different "common heritage of mankind" doctrine. Some third world countries have claimed that the "common heritage" doctrine would mean that anyone wanting to establish a lunar settlement might have to pay off the leaders of every nation on Earth.

Fortunately, since it wasn't ratified by the U.S. or any other nation that was then spacefaring, the Moon Treaty is generally regarded as a dead letter, and is not binding on the U.S. or its citizens. Thus, The Space Settlement Institute is firmly convinced that, as things stand now, private entities can claim ownership of land on the Moon "on the basis of use and occupation" although nations cannot.

For a fully detailed, footnoted discussion of the many legal questions, opinions and precedents involved, as published in SMU Law School's Journal of Air Law & Commerce, the oldest and most respected law journal in its field, see: "Space Settlements, Property Rights, and International Law: Could a Lunar Settlement Claim the Real Estate It Needs to Survive?" Now that article has also been reprinted, in it's entirety, as the chapter on the subject of space property rights in the important new law school textbook from Westview Press: "International Law", Silverburg, ed., (ISBN 978-0-8133-4471-3).

Strip of lunar land
image credit: NASA

Questions & Answers about Lunar Land Claims Recognition

Note: The first 25 FAQs below are reprinted from the Space Settlement Initiative website.

  1. What is the real purpose of enacting a Lunar land claims recognition law?

  2. Will promising property rights be enough to produce the necessary investment in developing affordable space transport?

  3. What does international law say about private property ownership in space?

  4. Can there be property ownership without national sovereignty?

  5. What if other nations refuse to recognize land claims in space?

  6. Why not allow smaller, limited land claims for easier steps than settlement?

  7. Could lunar land really be worth enough money to make a difference?

  8. What conditions should the US set for recognition of a claim?

  9. How much land should a settlement be able to claim... and why?

  10. Why must the Earth-Moon space line and settlement be open to all paying passengers regardless of nationality?

  11. Wouldn't it help if a major company announced that, if a land claims recognition law were passed, it would try to develop affordable space transport?

  12. Are the weaknesses and compromises in this plan likely to be permanent?

  13. Didn't the earliest version of this plan talk about Lunar "land grants"? Why aren't you using that phrase any more?

  14. Did land grants work in the past, on Earth?

  15. You can't farm Lunar land, and Earth doesn't need the Moon's minerals. So how could Lunar land be put to profitable use?

  16. If you can't give figures, now, proving the profitability of the end uses of Lunar land, how could anyone raise big money for Lunar land?

  17. Could other sources of revenue be enough without land claims recognition?

  18. What if the Lunar settlement does not produce enough operating revenue to pay off its debts and make a profit?

  19. Could this law produce a new "space race"?

  20. Why is U.S. legislation, in particular, so important?

  21. Could the U.S. withdraw from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, claim national sovereignty on the Moon, then award property rights to whomever it pleased?

  22. What about defense? Does recognizing a land claim obligate the U.S. military to defend the Lunar settlement?

  23. What effect would this have on NASA and the aerospace companies?

  24. What do the experts say about this idea?

  25. Who came up with this idea?

More FAQs

The FAQs above cover basic questions about Lunar Land Claims Recognition. The following questions address more advanced issues.

  1. If we really went to the Moon in 1969, why aren't we there now?

  2. What were the assumptions before the Outer Space Treaty, (e.g. Robert Heinlein)?

  3. Should Lunar government be modeled after Antarctica?

  4. Could the UN just give every nation a portion of the Moon to own, thereby creating valuable Lunar property rights?

  5. Why don't space activists convince the public to support a government program to establish a base on the Moon and Mars?

  6. Will changing how NASA works bring the taxpayers back on board?

  7. What would Land Claims Recognition cost the US Government?

  8. What will this legislation do for general economic growth?

  9. Who would issue and record Lunar land deeds?

  10. Why are Lunar land sales necessary?

  11. Could this law force the US to recognize a foreign government's Lunar land claim?

  12. Shouldn't we wait to put such a law into effect until free societies are ready to settle the Moon, to keep it from encouraging the Chinese?

  13. Would Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty prohibit Lunar land claims recognition?


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Every revolutionary idea passes three stages:
  1. It's impossible.
  2. It's possible but not worth doing.
  3. I said it was a good idea all along.
- Arthur C. Clarke
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