As nations and even private companies prepare to return humans to the moon on a large scale, the question of how commercial activities can be managed on the lunar surface has become more crucial. An attempt to clarify this issue has been published by a free market think tank, the Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam Smith Pelosi to lead Congress delegation to Israel, Germany and UK Hillicon Valley – Shutterfly gets hacked Biden signs $8 billion defense bill MORE Institute. The proposal, titled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon, is an attempt to facilitate private ownership of land on the moon. The paper suggests that private ownership of chunks of the lunar surface will create wealth on Earth and even reduce poverty.
The scheme would distribute the moon’s surface among the nations of Earth who would rent, sell, or otherwise give lots to their citizens. As the Moon’s economic development progresses rapidly, corporations would presumably pay for the use of lunar lands, with revenues going to landowners on Earth. As an original approach, the plan of the Adam Smith Institute is breathtaking. It has also received its share of criticism.
Laws regarding private property on Earth vary from country to country and, in the United States, from state to state. In the United States, private property is defended by both federal and state law, but is also affected by the taking clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Additionally, the ability to develop or improve the land may be affected by environmental regulations and the Endangered Species Act. Many local governments have zoning laws that restrict what can be built on private real estate.
A vast change in international space law would have to take place for the Adam Smith Institute project to even be considered. Currently, the moon is governed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits national appropriation of celestial bodies such as the moon. Since nation states generally define the nature and regulation of private property, there is currently no framework for dividing the lunar surface among the nations of the world. A new treaty would have to be accepted for the Adam Smith Institute plan to take place.
Should each country apply its own land laws to lunar real estate under its control or should there be a common framework of laws and regulations applying to the entire moon? Should sites of cultural and historical significance, such as the Apollo landing sites, be excluded, as advocated by an organization called For All Moonkind?
The task of persuading the nations of Earth, some of which are hostile to each other and have different perceived interests, to agree to a treaty on lunar earth will likely be daunting. Imagine trying to work out a treaty that the United States and China, two of the major space powers, would agree to.
The Adam Smith Institute’s proposal has been the subject of some criticism. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders Wink-and-a-nod nomination: Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson really? White House spokesman calls Trump and Putin ‘pigs’ who ‘hate what America stands for’ Ukrainian official on Trump’s praise of Putin: ‘That’s good’ US is not “Russia’s neighbors” MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted in response, “Listen to me, because this is a wacky concept…what if instead we make big, rich corporations pay their taxes here on earth?”
Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi suggested that “privatizing the moon may seem like a crazy idea, but the sky has no limit for greed”. The column went on to suggest that the Outer Space Treaty should be updated, not to facilitate the economic development of the moon and other celestial bodies, but to discourage it. The 1979 Moon Treaty was an attempt to stop the commercial development of space by declaring “that the Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind”. No major space power has ratified the Moon Treaty.
Meanwhile, some countries have passed laws encouraging the extraction of lunar resources while respecting the Outer Space Treaty. According to Space News, Japan is the latest country to enact a law granting its nationals permission to exploit space resources and therefore ownership of those resources. The United States, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates have passed similar laws. The Artemis Accords note that resource extraction will be essential for future space exploration and development.
Other countries, such as Russia, oppose this approach and demand the adoption of an international system of regulations governing the extraction of space resources. Questions of private property and resource ownership in space are likely to be thorny for some time to come.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies “Why is it so difficult to return to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond” and “Why Is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.