On Friday, my wife – my beautiful, kind, wonderful and talented wife – will celebrate her birthday. She will spend her special day at work, under a freezing cold air conditioner, with only the thing getting her through the day being the thought of her two cats waiting for her at home with cute birthday hats atop their furry little noggins.
I hope to play a small part in making her birthday a happy one, although she and I both recognise and accept that I am not great at present buying, nor present wrapping, nor present giving (which I tend to turn into present-dropping, followed by present-breaking, followed by present-try-and-return-for-a-refund-ing).
Fortunately for me, my wife does not care for big, expensive presents for her birthday. She neither demands nor expects them. Though please don’t think I take her non- (or even anti-) materialistic spirit for granted. I would bring her the Moon in all of its pale, shining glory and give it to her as the first of many birthday gifts if I thought it was what she wanted. And if I could do so without affecting our planet’s tides, gravitational pull, and very existence.
Which got me thinking: could I legally buy her the Moon, drag it back to Earth, and give it to her as a birthday gift, so that she has complete and absolute legal ownership of it? Or if I could not afford to buy her the whole Moon, could I use one of those completely legitimate Moon-land-selling websites to gift her an acre of the Moon’s surface for her birthday, which she can use to plant the first succulent garden on an interstellar body?
The answer, sadly for me and happily for the existence of our planet, is no. Over 100 countries have collectively agreed that no-one and no nation can own any part of space or any celestial body floating around in it, be it moon, comet, sun or, just Muse-ing now, supermassive black hole. This is despite what my new favourite website, www.lunarland.com, will tell you as they try and sell you the perfect plot of land on the Moon for the bargain price of US$29.99 (from their site: ‘Lunar Land has been featured on BBC, Conan, NBC, CNN, Fox News & more’ – this is probably the lawyer in me, but I cannot help but notice the absence of the word ‘positively’ after the word ‘featured’ in their promotional messaging).
This worldwide agreement that space and everything in it can be neither owned nor traded was all decided well before Commander Armstrong took his first small step for man and giant leap for mankind. The Soviets and the United States, as they raced to be the dominant force in space during the 1960s, decided that maybe it was not such a great idea to let nations or people start claiming ownership or sovereignty over bits of the Moon or Mars or various passing comets. After all, we are a race that for its entire existence has fought and killed each other over land and territory here on Earth. I have no doubt that if nations were able to blast off into space for the purpose of claiming new territory, the US would have claimed ownership of the Moon, the Soviets would have tried to conquer it, and before you know it you and I are flying X-Wings through the trenches of some giant orbital space station with the sole mission of firing proton torpedos into an exhaust vent in order to save the universe from the US Space Force.
As I have no idea how to fly a small attack spacecraft (you, I expect, are awesome at it), we are fortunate indeed that space and everything in it is free from such territorial claims, and we have this 1960s agreement to thank. In what I consider to be a remarkable outcome considering the level of open hostility and competition between each nation at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, along with that well-known and powerful space faring nation the United Kingdom, created the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 (before Apollo 11 had landed on the Moon but well after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person in space in 1961). This Treaty set out a pretty straightforward set of rules for how all member nations would use space and everything in it.
Amongst other fine and lofty principles, member nations who signed up to the Treaty have agreed that the exploration of space by one nation is for the benefit of all nations, that the Moon and all celestial bodies can only be used only for peaceful purposes, that no nation can put ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in space, and (sorry my love) that nothing in space can be claimed or owned by any person or nation.
As of today, there are 108 countries that are members of this Treaty, including Australia. Even the Vatican is a signatory to it. This means that there is no way that I, you, the Pope, or anyone else can own the Moon, whether the whole 7.35x 1022 kilogrammes of it, or a tiny plot of land on it that we purchase from that highly reputable and Conan O’Brien featured Lunar Land website. I will have to get my wife another present for her birthday then. What do you think about me getting her a puppy? Everyone likes a surprise puppy on their birthday, right?