Can someone own the moon?

It's Only a Paper Moon

There was a time when claiming to be the King of the Moon would have landed you in the booby hatch and selling lunar property would have gotten you a one-way ticket to jail. Yet, today, a quick Internet search will turn up half a dozen companies willing to peddle you a lunar deed.

Half of those links will land you on a page by or about Dennis Hope, an American impresario who claims legal ownership of the moon and most of the rest of the solar system. The self-proclaimed Head Cheese argues that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, in its haste to squash any attempt to claim the moon for king or country, left the door ajar for private title. In 1980, he announced his claim to the United States, the Soviet government and the United Nations; conveniently, he took their lack of reply as tacit consent and has been hawking lunar land ever since [source: CNN].

To reassure his clientele of the security of their property rights, Hope established a galactic government, complete with a ratified constitution, a congress, a unit of currency, a patent office, as well as passports and Internet domain names for sale (.moon, anyone?).

Hope is not alone in his celestial claims. Martin Juergens of Germany asserts that his family has owned the moon since Prussian monarch Frederick the Great bequeathed it to them in the 18th century. So far, no paperwork has come to light supporting Mr. Juergens's claim [source: CNN].

Along similar lines, in 1997, three men from Yemen sued NASA for invading Mars with its Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover. The men alleged that their ancestors had held title to the red planet for 3,000 years [source: CNN].

Of course, these paltry planets are chickenfeed compared to the realm snatched up by Chicago publicity man James T. Mangan. On Dec. 20, 1948, Mangan declared his own country, the Nation of Celestial Space, whose territory encompassed -- you guessed it -- space. Then (this is our favorite part of the story) the self-proclaimed First Representative waited nine minutes for Earth to clear out of the space it then occupied, and annexed that volume as well.

Mangan planned to sell Earth-sized chunks of space at $1 apiece (around $10-$15 in 2012 money). For that price, buyers would become participants (not citizens) of an "intellectual tyranny," with limited "suggestion rights or thinking rights," and not much else [source: Science Illustrated].

In the end, claims to outer space amount to novelties or scams that the international community will go on ignoring. Unless a more formal international recognition comes about, we wouldn't trust those deeds as far as we could throw them -- even under the moon's weaker gravity.

Why? As we'll see, there's probably not as much wiggle-room in space law as Mr. Hope and his type like to think.

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