Who Owns The Moon? A 'Space Lawyer' Answers

Authored by Frans von der Dunk via The Conversation,

Most likely, this is the best-known picture of a flag ever taken: Buzz Aldrin standing next to the first U.S. flag planted on the Moon. For those who knew their world history, it also rang some alarm bells. Only less than a century ago, back on Earth, planting a national flag in another part of the world still amounted to claiming that territory for the fatherland. Did the Stars and Stripes on the moon signify the establishment of an American colony?

When people hear for the first time that I am a lawyer practicing and teaching something called “space law,” the question they ask most frequently, often with a big smile or a twinkle in the eye, is: “So tell me, who owns the moon?”

Of course, claiming new national territories had been very much a European habit, applied to non-European parts of the world. In particular the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the English created huge colonial empires. But while their attitude was very Europe-centric, the legal notion that planting a flag was an act of establishing sovereignty quickly stuck and became accepted worldwide as part and parcel of the law of nations.

Obviously, the astronauts had more important things on their mind than contemplating the legal meaning and consequences of that planted flag, but luckily the issue had been taken care of prior to the mission. Since the beginning of the space race the United States knew that for many people around the world the sight of a U.S. flag on the Moon would raise major political issues. Any suggestion that the moon might become, legally speaking, part of U.S. backwaters might fuel such concerns, and possibly give rise to international disputes harmful to both the U.S. space program and U.S. interests as a whole.

By 1969, decolonization may have destroyed any notion that non-European parts of the world, though populated, were not civilized and thus justifiably made subject to European sovereignty – however, there was not a single person living on the moon; even life itself was absent.

Still, the simple answer to the question of whether Armstrong and Aldrin by way of their small ceremony did transform the moon, or at least a major part thereof, into U.S. territory turns out to be “no.” They, nor NASA, nor the U.S. government intended the U.S. flag to have that effect.

This composite image of the moon using Clementine data from 1994 is the view we are most likely to see when the moon is full. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The first outer space treaty

Most importantly, that answer was enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which both the United States and the Soviet Union as well as all other space-faring nations, had become a party. Both superpowers agreed that “colonization” on Earth had been responsible for tremendous human suffering and many armed conflicts that had raged over the last centuries. They were determined not to repeat that mistake of the old European colonial powers when it came to decide on the legal status of the moon; at least the possibility of a “land grab” in outer space giving rise to another world war was to be avoided. By that token, the moon became something of a “global commons” legally accessible to all countries – two years prior to the first actual manned moon landing.

So, the U.S. flag was not a manifestation of claiming sovereignty, but of honoring the U.S. taxpayers and engineers who made Armstrong, Aldrin, and third astronaut Michael Collins’ mission possible. The two men carried a plaque that they “came in peace for all mankind,” and of course Neil’s famous words echoed the same sentiment: his “small step for man” was not a “giant leap” for the United States, but “for mankind.” Furthermore, the United States and NASA lived up to their commitment by sharing the moon rocks and other samples of soil from the lunar surface with the rest of the world, whether by giving them away to foreign governments or by allowing scientists from all over the globe to access them for scientific analysis and discussion. In the midst of the Cold War, this even included scientists from the Soviet Union.

Case closed, no need for space lawyers anymore then? No need for me to prepare University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s space law students for further discussions and disputes on the lunar law, right?

No space lawyers needed?

Not so fast. While the legal status of the Moon as a “global commons” accessible to all countries on peaceful missions did not meet any substantial resistance or challenge, the Outer Space Treaty left further details unsettled. Contrary to the very optimistic assumptions made at the time, so far humankind has not returned to the moon since 1972, making lunar land rights largely theoretical.

That is, until a few years ago when several new plans were hatched to go back to the moon. In addition at least two U.S. companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, which have serious financial backing, have started targeting asteroids for the purpose of mining their mineral resources. Geek note: Under the aforementioned Outer Space Treaty, the moon and other celestial bodies such as asteroids, legally speaking, belong in the same basket. None of them can become the “territory” of one sovereign state or another.

The very fundamental prohibition under the Outer Space Treaty to acquire new state territory, by planting a flag or by any other means, failed to address the commercial exploitation of natural resources on the moon and other celestial bodies. This is a major debate currently raging in the international community, with no unequivocally accepted solution in sight yet. Roughly, there are two general interpretations possible.

A super blood moon tinted red by scattered light. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

So you want to mine an asteroid?

Countries such as the United States and Luxembourg (as the gateway to the European Union) agree that the moon and asteroids are “global commons,” which means that each country allows its private entrepreneurs, as long as duly licensed and in compliance with other relevant rules of space law, to go out there and extract what they can, to try and make money with it. It’s a bit like the law of the high seas, which are not under the control of an individual country, but completely open to duly licensed law-abiding fishing operations from any country’s citizens and companies. Then, once the fish is in their nets, it is legally theirs to sell.

On the other hand, countries such as Russia and somewhat less explicitly Brazil and Belgium hold that the moon and asteroids belong to humanity as a whole. And therefore the potential benefits from commercial exploitation should somehow accrue for humanity as a whole – or at least should be subjected to a presumably rigorous international regime to guarantee humanity-wide benefits. It’s a bit like the regime originally established for harvesting mineral resources from the deep seabed. Here, an international licensing regime was created as well as an international enterprise, which was to mine those resources and generally share the benefits among all countries.

While in my view the former position certainly would make more sense, both legally and practically, the legal battle by no means is over. Meanwhile, the interest in the moon has been renewed as well – at least China, India and Japan have serious plans to go back there, raising the stakes even higher. Therefore, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln we will need to teach our students about these issues for many years to come. While ultimately it is up to the community of states to determine whether common agreement can be reached on either of the two positions or maybe somewhere in between, it is of crucial importance that agreement can be reached one way or another. Such activities developing without any law that is generally applicable and accepted would be a worst-case scenario. While not a matter of colonization anymore, it may have all the same harmful results.


ted41776 Mon, 07/23/2018 - 17:56 Permalink

it's mine, all mine, every single piece. i wrote it here on this piece of paper, and that makes it law. now fuck off and take your shitty rovers with you

stacking12321 SafelyGraze Mon, 07/23/2018 - 18:25 Permalink

It’s a bit like the law of the high seas, which are not under the control of an individual country, but completely open to duly licensed law-abiding fishing operations from any country’s citizens and companies.

this makes no sense!

what is a "duly licensed law-abiding fishing operation" - if the waters are not under the control of any country, then whose laws does a fisherman there have to abide by? and who licenses them?

In reply to by SafelyGraze

t0mmyBerg tmosley Mon, 07/23/2018 - 22:35 Permalink

Nobody owns the Moon because nobody is there mixing their labor with the land to produce value, and nobody is there to defend it.

Finally someone who gets it.  Hard to take the author seriously when he didnt raise these most important of issues.  To claim soverignty a flag planting is not enough.  You have to have people doing something there.  Colonization if you will.  While the author waves away the colonization issue, because we all know how ugly that was here on earth, the reason it was ugly is because there were indigienous peoples already there who were subjugated and replaced.  That is the history of earth.  No one lives on the moon so the arguments about colinization do not really apply.  Nevertheless, unless you have people there making improvements and acting as if the land is theirs, there is no claim.  Of course the other way is to have a military who rejects all comers other than those it approves.  Then the place belongs to them and theirs.

In reply to by tmosley

Proofreder Juggernaut x2 Mon, 07/23/2018 - 23:25 Permalink

"For those few misguided souls who still cling to the belief that the Moon landings never happened, examination of the results of five decades of LRRR experiments should evidence how delusional their rejection of the Moon landing really is."   Neil A. Armstrong

Seems to be more than a few misguided souls on ZH this fine evening, clinging
to their Guns and Bibles.

In reply to by Juggernaut x2

The Ram brushhog Mon, 07/23/2018 - 20:48 Permalink

True, we never went.  BTW, Funny picture to illustrate the point that 'we went to the moon by showing an American flag flapping in the wind in a zero atmosphere environment.  If you are inquisitive enough (and most Americans are not), you can find loads and loads of evidence supporting the truth that America did not go to the moon.  Take almost any area of what would be needed to support a manned moon mission, lets say computing power, and follow it to some logical conclusion.   I will not even get into the photo and video 'documentation.'  It's a joke.  Also, for you true believers, please write to NASA and ask them what they did with the telemetry data.  

In reply to by brushhog

RedBaron616 Troy Ounce Mon, 07/23/2018 - 18:45 Permalink

"Buzz Aldrin standing next to the first U.S. flag planted on the Moon. For those who knew their world history, it also rang some alarm bells."

I suspect this statement is a lie. Who would have viewed such a moment with alarm? Pure nonsense. We were proud to be Americans. Besides, it is not like we would be claiming territory that anyone else had claimed and there are no natives to dispute the claim. 

In reply to by Troy Ounce

cougar_w stacking12321 Mon, 07/23/2018 - 18:45 Permalink

Fishing vessels are registered to a country. Countries sign to treaties, and these treaties have the effect of law for citizens (and corporations) of those signing countries. If the country (Norway) never signed a treaty (1986 moratorium on whaling) then ships so registered (Norwegian whalers) can do as they please on the high seas.

The same will likely apply to the Moon if we ever get around to going back.

In reply to by stacking12321

any_mouse NoDebt Mon, 07/23/2018 - 19:34 Permalink

The Martian Marine Gunny with body fat. The diverse crew of the stolen Mars military ship with their endless supply of hair gel and well rimmed coifs.

The high point was the kiss between the detective and the girl, who thinks she's a space ship, as they fell towards the gas planet. Cosmic awesomeness. I stopped after Season 2. Lost interest.

Humans is Space. Parasites in Space. False Flags. Corporate cronies. Same Shit, Different Orbits.

The article assumes that there is a USA flag planted on the lunar surface.

I think the USA owns a sound stage somewhere in hidden space. Maybe in the USAF Motion Picture Laboratory overlooking Laurel Canyon.

In reply to by NoDebt

Branded man from glad Mon, 07/23/2018 - 18:10 Permalink

Don't forget that it was B&W, rabbit ears on top with tin foil flags, and the hum of the tubes coming from the guts! For the good parts of the show, someone had to stand next to it holding on to the antenna for better reception. Then heading down to the drug store tube tester with Dad when everything went black. . . . good times.

In reply to by man from glad

Proofreder stacking12321 Mon, 07/23/2018 - 23:37 Permalink

A total of 382 kilograms (842 lb) of Moon rocks and dust were collected during the Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 missions.[26] Some 10 kg (22 lb) of the Moon rocks have been used in hundreds of experiments performed by both NASA researchers and planetary scientists at research institutions unaffiliated with NASA. These experiments have confirmed the age and origin of the rocks as lunar, and were used to identify lunar meteorites collected later from Antarctica.[27] The oldest Moon rocks are up to 4.5 billion years old,[26] making them 200 million years older than the oldest Earth rocks, which are from the Hadean eon and dated 3.8 to 4.3 billion years ago. The rocks returned by Apollo are very close in composition to the samples returned by the independent Soviet Luna programme.[28] A rock brought back by Apollo 17 was dated to be 4.417 billion years old, with a margin of error of plus or minus 6 million years. The test was done by a group of researchers headed by Alexander Nemchin at Curtin University of Technology in Bentley, Australia.[29]


Probably too much science for most hedgers to cope with.  Sorry, lightweights.

In reply to by stacking12321

Not Too Important hedgeless_horseman Mon, 07/23/2018 - 19:17 Permalink

'Neil Armstrong gave her a vial of moon dust, she says. She’s suing so NASA won’t take it'

"An expert who tested and analyzed the dust found that the sample “may have originated” from the moon’s surface, court documents say. One test found that the dust’s mineralogy is consistent with the known composition of lunar soil. Another test found the sample’s composition similar to “average crust of Earth.”

Despite the varied findings, the expert wrote in his report that “it would be difficult to rule out lunar origin” and that it’s possible that some dust from Earth “mingled with this likely lunar sample.”


Straight from the set...

In reply to by hedgeless_horseman

HRClinton hedgeless_horseman Mon, 07/23/2018 - 20:10 Permalink

Because, for those few who paid attention during the program, samples were sent to a bunch of universities for analysis.

They results were surprising.

You guys need to apply your overdeveloped skepticism where it hurts but benefits you the most: at your ancient myths, fables and porky lies about your invented ME deities.

(The cognitive dissonance just became palpable.)

In reply to by hedgeless_horseman

Proofreder Branded Mon, 07/23/2018 - 23:47 Permalink
  • The rock in question wasn't from the moon.
  • The rock given to Prime Minister Willem Drees, was actually presented by US Ambassador J. William Middendorf II,  presented 9 October, 1969.
  • Coincidentally, Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on a goodwill tour of the Netherlands at that time.
  • The two Apollo 11 Astronauts did accompany a commemorative display containing grain sized samples of lunar basalt.
  • Drees' rock was later donated to the Rijksmuseum in 1992.

Whether those handling Drees' estate made an error, or whether the museum made a mistake; somewhere along the way someone got the idea that Ambassador Middendorf had given Drees a rock from the moon. They were misinformed.

It was actually a piece of petrified wood, probably from the US State of Arizona.

This was confirmed in 2009 when Drees' “moon rock” was tested.

In reply to by Branded

justdues TrajanOptimus Mon, 07/23/2018 - 20:52 Permalink

yeah well NASA gave one of those moon rocks to a museum in Holland who tested it and it turned out to be fossilized tree bark or some shit . And then NASA went and lost all the original photos negatives of the moon landings ,  blueprints of the rockets etc , yeah most important event in human history and all the evidence just went in  the re-cycling bin , you know to help save the whales an stuff .

In reply to by TrajanOptimus

Proofreder justdues Mon, 07/23/2018 - 23:50 Permalink

Bullshit ... here are the facts:

  • The rock in question wasn't from the moon.
  • The rock was given to Prime Minister Willem Drees, by US Ambassador J. William Middendorf II,  on 9 October, 1969.
  • Coincidentally, Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on a goodwill tour of the Netherlands at that time.
  • The two Apollo 11 Astronauts did accompany a commemorative display containing grain sized samples of lunar basalt.
  • Drees' rock was later donated to the Rijksmuseum in 1992.

In reply to by justdues