Who owns the Moon? My very good friend Virgiliu Pop knows the answer to that question, because he is a space lawyer who wrote a book on the subject. So next time you get an invite in your inbox to buy a piece of real estate on the Moon, and you’re seriously thinking about it, try and read his book first.
Virgiliu is a space lawyer, working for the Romanian Space Agency. He wrote this book in 2009. He was also the Commander of my first Analog Mars Mission, RoMars 2011 (at the Mars Desert Research Station, in Utah), which is when I first heard about it. I must confess, I bought my copy on (our analog) Mars. I had no idea what a space lawyer did at the time but it seems like the job is real. In the meantime New Zealand has its own space lawyer, Dr Maria Pozza.
The Economist explains what a space lawyer does: sits at the “lunatic fringe of the profession”.
Virgiliu is an accomplished writer and a fine irony man. In his very serious book, he brings into discussion old precedents: the businessman that the Little Prince encounters in his travels through the Solar System. The real story was not far from the truth. The first Lunar Embassy established by a real Mr Dennis M. Hope, The Head Cheese, was based exactly on the fact that nobody thought of putting a claim on things from outer space before. Mr Hope in fact boasted to have sold “unreal estate” to 3.6 million extraterrestrial property owners, in 181 (Earth) countries.
Unreal or not, The Moon was often sought as the symbol of supreme desire – notes Virgiliu. Owning the Moon was the ultimate want and asking for the impossible. When just after the war the two superpowers began what was going to be known as the Cold War, it was the future President Johnson who convinced the then President Kennedy to deliver his powerful speech that then worked on its intended audience not through the invocation of science or human curiosity but on the ideals of the free world against the threat of Communism. In facing such threat and carefully considering the perspective of going to bed “by the light of a communist moon” (Goldstein 1982, 191) the Congress allocated the funds that the U.S. needed to eventually win the space race.
On May 21, 1961, Kennedy asked for an additional seven to nine billion dollars on “urgent national needs” placed clearly in the camp of competing ideologies:
“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination from which road they should take.” (NASA 2004)
This discourse was kept alive for the duration of the Moon race.
But before the Russians and Americans started fighting for the Moon, a man called Dean Lindsay of Ocilla, already claimed it in 1936. Presenting himself in the front of a Notary Public in Pittsburgh he made the claim for “all of the the property known as planets, islands-of-space or other matter, henceforth to be known as
“A.D. Lindsay’s archapellago” located in all the region visible (by any means) … from the city of Orcilla, GA, together with all… matter (except this world…) visible from any other planet, island-of-space or other matter”,
Virgiliu says that Mr Lindsay, however, didn’t claim the space between these islands-of-space, which gave James Thomas Mangan the opportunity to do so to a decade later.
“On that memorable day of the Universe, December 20, 1948, at the stroke of midnight, after indefatigable research, James Thomas Mangan, standing high atop of the City of Chicago, reached out and seized all space in the sky in all directions away from the Earth as the complete possession and domain of the new sovereign Nation of Celestial Space.
Fortunately for us the United Nations rejected their request for membership on the basis of the provisions of Article 4.1 of the UN Charter, reading
Membership in the United Nations is open to all… States which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgement of the Organisation, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.
Which is why is really good to consult a space lawyer beforehand should you ever wish to lay further claims on things extraterrestrial. Fortunately, to protect all of us, you can’t just go and claim space.