As the Asian space race heats up, nations are beginning to ask who owns Earth’s lone satellite. According to a prominent researcher on the subject, lunar property rights should be strictly first come, first served.
With Indian, Chinese, and Japanese spacecraft now orbiting the moon and the US and Japan planning to build lunar bases, it’s only a matter of time before disputes arise over who has a right to build on and mine the moon and where. The UN’s so-called Moon Treaty declares that the moon is part of mankind’s common heritage, and would ban ownership of any extraterrestrial party, but the treaty has never passed and has not been ratified by any nation with a space program.
According to Virgiliu Pop, that’s all for the best, since the UN has the wrong idea. Pop is a Romanian space lawyer who has written extensively on the topic of lunar property. His latest book Who Owns the Moon? Extraterrestrial Aspects of Land and Mineral Resources, Pop explores the possibility of creating a legal framework for property and natural resources law on the moon. At the heart of this exploration is the notion that energetic individuals, rather than international coalitions, will need to claim property in order to advance the cause of extraterrestrial colonization:
"Homesteading is likely to transform the lunar desert in the same manner as it transformed the 19th Century United States," he said. "Space is indeed a new frontier calling for individualism rather than collectivism, and its challenges need to be addressed with a legal regime favorable to property rights."
He also challenges the notion that homesteading will favor citizens of wealthy nations, whose public and private enterprises have the resources and technology to travel into space:
"A refutation of the Common Heritage principle does not mean, however, that the developing world will, or should, be left behind in the space era," he said. "China, India and Brazil are living proofs that a developing country can, through its own effort, join the spacefaring club. Instead of freeloading on the efforts of the older spacefarers, the have-nots should pool their meager financial resources into a common space agency or into regional ones, and proceed at exploiting the riches of outer space for themselves."
Pop’s ultimate concern is that, without the development of a legal framework for lunar property rights, the moon will remain largely undeveloped. But, with more and more private companies looking into space travel, it may be a necessary to establish rights for private systems simply to ensure that laws are in place before the first settlers stake their claims. If the international community can develop a cohesive and enforceable framework, it could help keep the lunar frontier from descending into the wild West.