The Men Who Claimed to Own Outer Space
On July 20, 1969, after more than a decade of feverishly competing against the Russians, NASA ended the space race and pulled off one of the most incredible scientific achievements of all time: They put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, with Michael Collins attending from nearby.
Its one-time owner, A. Dean Lindsay, probably would have considered the feat trespassing.
In 1937, Lindsay turned up at a Pittsburgh Notary Public’s office with documents declaring that he owned “the property known as planets, islands-of-space or other matter, henceforth to be known as ‘A.D. Lindsay’s archapellago [sic].’” He omitted Earth from his claim, apparently reasoning that it belonged to everyone who called it home. And though he originally left Saturn and the moon for other enterprising intergalactic real estate moguls, Lindsay soon took those, too, submitting separate claims for each.
He sent his documents, and payment for officially recording his claims, to the clerk of the Superior Court in his hometown of Ocilla, Georgia. It's not clear what the clerk thought of the claims, but they were duly recorded on June 28, 1937.
Lindsay included “improvements, ways, waters, water courses, rights, liberties, privileges, hereditaments and appurtenances ... and the revisions and remainders, rents, issues, and profits thereof; and all the estate, right, title, interest, property, claim and demand whatsoever, in law, equity or otherwise, howsoever, of, in and to the same and every part thereof” of his lands, but he didn't claim the outer space surrounding the moon and other celestial bodies he claimed to own. Those areas were snapped up in 1948 by James T. Mangan, a self-help guru who declared all of outer space, minus the celestial bodies, the “Nation of Celestial Space,” or “Celestia.” He presented his “Charter of Celestia” to the Recorder of Deeds and Titles of Cook County, Illinois, who was initially flummoxed but eventually entered the charter into the record. Mangan even applied for membership in the United Nations, but was denied.
Mangan and Lindsay’s ownership claims were both thwarted when the Outer Space Treaty entered into legal force in 1967. The treaty declared that space is free for all nations to explore, and sovereign claims cannot be made.
Still, the treaty didn’t stop Dennis Hope from deeming himself the “omnipitant [sic] ruler of the lighted lunar surface” in 1980. He claimed—via a “Declaration of Ownership” sent to the U.S., the USSR, and the UN General Assembly—our moon, plus the other eight planets and their moons. Unlike Lindsay, who refused to sell even a square inch of his “land,” Hope’s sole stated intent is to cash in by selling parcels of his galactic property. As of 2013, he said he had sold 611 million acres on the moon, 325 million acres on Mars, and a combined 125 million acres on Venus, Io, and Mercury.
Hope says the 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn’t apply to his case because it prohibits claims by nations, not individuals. But Tanja Masson-Zwaan, president of the International Institute of Space Law, told National Geographic in 2009 that the treaty prohibits claims by both nations and private citizens. “What [Hope] is doing does not give people buying pieces of paper the right to ownership of the moon,” she clarified.
The moon and the planets aren't the only celestial bodies that have been claimed. A 2015 law signed by President Obama attempted to carve out at least one area where individuals can claim rights in outer space: asteroids. According to the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, “any asteroid resources obtained in outer space are the property of the entity that obtained them.” However, other countries—citing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—say those rights aren’t the United States’s to give.
All of this space appropriation would have been entirely unwelcome news to A. Dean Lindsay, who was thoroughly convinced that he had obtained sole ownership of all of it. “Can you believe it?” he wrote in a letter to a friend in the 1930s. “That I own the Moon and the Sun, the stars, the comets, meteors, asteroids—everything, everywhere beyond this world?”