Space Lawyer Explains Who “Owns” the Moon


Seeing Buzz Aldrin next to the American Flag planted on the Moon might have been an iconic photo, showing that man finally visited the Moon. But others also wondered if planting the national flag on it also meant (like here on Earth) that it was claimed for the US?

Frans von der Dunk, a Professor of Space Law from University of Nebraska-Lincoln has the answer to this question:

“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?’”

He explains in an article published in The Conversation that things don’t work this way on the Moon. The act of establishing sovereignty through planting a flag into a territory did not apply in this case. The astronauts had far more things to consider that the legal meaning of implanting a flag in the lunar surface!

The professor explains that neither Armstrong or Aldrin intended their ceremony to be the claiming of the moon to be US territory: “They, nor NASA, nor the US government intended the US flag to have that effect.”

Colonization on Earth Vs. Colonization on the Moon

In the Outer Space Treaty (1967), the US and the Soviet Union became a party, agreeing that “colonization” on Earth only brought suffering in the last centuries, and they would not do the same with the moon. That’s when the moon became a “global commons,” which would be legally accessible to all countries.

However, even if the US shared samples from the moon with scientists from all over the world, and even if Armstrong took that giant leap for humankind, not for the US, this doesn’t mean that space lawyers should just quit.

Here comes a different issue: the Outer Space Treaty has some details unsettled: Like mining mineral resources. Both the moon and asteroids are considered celestial bodies, which are not the territory of a sovereign state.

When the treaty was signed, they only talked about acquiring the territory. Nothing was mentioned about commercial exploitation of the resources on celestial bodies. According to the idea that the moon and asteroids are “global commons,” each country allows private entrepreneurs that are licensed and comply with rules of space law to go to space and gather resources.


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