The lawfulness of extraterrestrial real estate

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at the lawfulness of extraterrestrial real estate. Extraterrestrial real estate refers to claims of land ownership on other planets or natural satellites or parts of space by certain organisations, individuals, and artists. The topic of real estate on celestial bodies has been present since the 1890s. Dean Lindsay made claims for all extraterrestrial objects on June 15, 1936. The public sent offers to buy objects from him as well.

Such claims are not recognised by any authority, and have no legal standing. Nevertheless, some private individuals and organisations have claimed ownership of celestial bodies, such as the Moon, and are actively involved in “selling” parts of them through certificates of ownership termed “Lunar deeds” or “Martian deeds”.

Dennis Hope, real estate agent and owner of the Moon

For years, we have been talking about Dennis Hope, this intriguing character who claims to be the owner of the Moon. Dennis Hope is a man at work unusual: he sells properties on the Moon since the 1980s. It is not the only celestial body to his meter: he also managed to award land on Mercury, Mars, Venus and the natural satellite of Jupiter, Io.

Dennis Hope is making money on the back of our dear natural satellite through his real estate agency, the Lunar Embassy. Each piece of land costs twenty-four American dollars, including nineteen American dollars for the property, one and a half American dollar of lunar tax, and two and a half American dollars to print the name of the owner on the certificate.

Since a divorce that would have ruined Dennis Hope, this American has sold more than four hundred million acres of lunar land thanks to his agency. Meanwhile, he created an “Intergalactic Government”, through which he ratified a Space Constitution in agreement with the owners and the various lunar governments that emerged. And a currency has even been instituted: the Delta.

Dennis Hope also stated: “In 2008, we estimated that the Moon hosts reserves of Helium 3 – a very powerful energy – worth billions of billions of American dollars. We intend to exploit these reserves and thereby give credibility to our money, the Delta, so that we can start using it and help governments in need”. As a direct result, the Lunar Embassy, originally a real estate agency, became the first and only company to use Helium 3 resources on behalf of the “Intergalactic Government”.

The lawfulness of extraterrestrial real estate

Dennis 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. Dennis Hope believes that the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t apply to individuals.

Let’s recall that Article II of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) states that “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

Article VI of the aforementioned Treaty adds that “States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. 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. When activities are carried on in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, by an international organization, responsibility for compliance with this Treaty shall be borne both by the international organization and by the States Parties to the Treaty participating in such organization”.

Article VI vests the responsibility for activities in space to States Parties, regardless of whether they are carried out by governments or non-governmental entities. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 has been ratified by all the major space-faring nations and has thus become customary law (opinio juris sive necessitatis). Dennis Hope’s explanation therefore doesn’t really stands.

Some other celestial real estate agents

Even if there weren’t any legal reasons why a person couldn’t own the Moon, Dennis Hope might have a problem: he wasn’t the first to lay claim to it. The Jürgens, a German family, 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 enounced that it would be passed on to his sons. But there have been many challenges to the Jürgens’ ownership in the ensuing two hundred and fifty years.

Continuing on the lawfulness of extraterrestrial real estate, in 1936, a man named A. Dean Lindsay claimed not only the Moon but all celestial bodies, 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 seventy-four nations to announce that he was forming the Nation of Celestial Space, or Celestia, which would encompass all of space outside of Earth.

In 1953, a Chilean lawyer and poet named Jenaro Gajardo Vera also claimed to own the Moon. He registered a title deed (a legal deed or document constituting evidence of a right, especially to ownership of property) 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).

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. This is what can be said about the lawfulness of extraterrestrial real estate.