When I was 10, I found a land application for 1 square inch of the moon in my Cheerios cereal box. The time was the 1940s, long before John F. Kennedy had a gleam in his eyes to send Neil Armstrong into the stratosphere. As I was fascinated with astronomy, I jumped at the chance to own a piece of our beautiful satellite and sent the form in at once. A few weeks later, an envelope arrived with my name on it, containing my deed, together with the map location of my square inch.
For several years I hung on to that piece of paper, at least until I was 13 and ready to put my childish whims aside. But I often wonder what NASA would say if I’d kept a record of my claim. Who knows, maybe Armstrong’s boot print straddled my square inch. It’s a lovely dream.
The question of ownership in outer space became serious in the 1960s, thanks to President John F. Kennedy’s rocket program. But the Russians were serious, too, and for a time, a little ahead of us. Eventually other countries took an interest in space exploration, so in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty was signed by 103 members, all agreeing no one and no country had a right to appropriate territory in the heavens. (“Asteroid Rage,” by Clive Thompson, Wired, January 2016 pg. 40.) Twelve years later, in 1979, the United States crafted the Moon Treaty, but no one signed — which may mean my Cheerios deed might hold up in a court of law, after all. If not, I might own the mineral rights.
The last point is important because the United States is trying to do a little catch-up on outer space regulations. As private companies launch rockets into the heavens, the prospect of galactic plundering is raising its ugly head, particularly with regard to asteroids. Some companies have mapped out locations on some of them where there appear to be dense mineral and metal concentrations. Since our government brought back rocks from the moon, it can hardly object to others doing the same. That’s why, “The Commercial Act of 2015 says, ‘citizens can possess, own, transport and sell’ an asteroid resource once they obtain it.” (Ibid pg. 40) Unfortunately, the government has failed to establish an agency to issue and file such claims. At the moment, we have what amounts to a wild frontier.
Of course, The Commercial Act of 2015 is unilateral. We have no way of forcing g Russia, China or any other country to follow our rules.
In the meantime, I’m scrabbling through my memorabilia box, hoping my moon deed turns up. If not, maybe General Mills has kept a record. Or, I could buy shares in the company that staked a moon claim when I was 10.