The Lunar Real Estate Market, What You Can Get And Is It Legal? : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Location, location, location! As private companies race to control space travel, a conversation around spatial real estate gets reignited. Today on the show, can you buy the moon? If so, how much?

Who Owns The Moon?

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hey, INDICATOR listeners. We want to hear from you. If you have a spare minute, please take a brief survey. Tell us what you think of the show. Just go to npr.org/indicatorsurvey. That's npr.org/indicatorsurvey.

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: A few weeks ago, you might remember, we at THE INDICATOR purchased some property.

And so...

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: You purchased us a plot of land somewhere in outer space.

VANEK SMITH: No, not in outer space - I bought us an acre of land on the moon.

GARCIA: (Laughter) What?

VANEK SMITH: I have the certificates right here.

GARCIA: How much did we spend for this acre on the moon, out of curiosity?

VANEK SMITH: It's an excellent question. It was $25.

Of course, I bought this as a joke. There was no part of me that thought we actually owned an acre of the actual moon. But then I started looking into it, and it turns out we might.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, property in space - the laws around buying extraterrestrial land or resources are pretty nebulous. And for a long time, this was just a moot point. Almost nobody went to space, much less did business up there. But that is changing fast. Now you've got Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson going to space. And people are starting to get serious about locking down the right to cash in on the final frontier.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Who owns the moon? If you ask Christopher Lamar, he will tell you his dad owns it. Chris is the president of the Lunar Embassy. They sold us our acre of moon.

CHRISTOPHER LAMAR: Lunar Embassy is a company that provides a methodology for the distribution of equity upon celestial bodies within our solar system.

VANEK SMITH: You sell property in space.

LAMAR: I sell property in space.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

Lunar Embassy is selling this property in space based on Chris' dad, who claimed ownership of the moon and all of the planets 40 years ago. It was a really low point in his life. He was going through a divorce and really struggling with his finances.

LAMAR: And he's sitting at a red light. And he's saying to himself, if only I owned a lot of property, things would be a lot better, right? And staring at him in the windshield was a full moon. And he said, well, there's a lot of property. And right then, two epiphanies hit him.

VANEK SMITH: Epiphany No. 1, something he remembered learning in a college class about the 1967 International Space Treaty - countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Russia all agreed that the moon and all the planets were the, quote, "province of mankind."

LAMAR: No governmental entity or sovereign entity can own, have jurisdiction or authority over any of the celestial bodies within our solar system.

VANEK SMITH: The treaty, however, did not say anything about individuals or companies not being able to own or have jurisdiction over the moon and the planets. And that is where epiphany No. 2 came in.

LAMAR: The Homestead Act of 1862.

VANEK SMITH: The Homestead Act said people could claim land on the Western frontier, sight unseen, as long as they would agree to live on it and pay a small registration fee. After this red-light eureka moment, Chris' dad headed to the county recorder's office in San Francisco.

LAMAR: He filed a claim of ownership for the moon of Earth, the other eight planets in our solar system and their moons in entirety.

VANEK SMITH: Chris' dad just said, hey, so you know the moon and also Mars and Saturn and all those? No country has the right to claim them, but individuals technically can - so dibs.

LAMAR: The first county recorder said, wait; what? And it actually took quite a while. A manager had to come over. And it basically came down to, look. I'm going to give you the $35. I want you to put a stamp on this piece of paper and put it in your filing cabinet and record it. I'm recording a document, period.

VANEK SMITH: Chris' dad bought the moon and all the planets for $35. Just like that, Lunar Embassy was launched. You can go to their website and take your pick of planets. An acre of Venus, Mercury, Mars, the moon - for $25, it can be yours. And Chris says a lot of people have taken him up on this offer over the years.

LAMAR: We're reaching 6 million landowners.

VANEK SMITH: Six million's a lot.

LAMAR: Yeah, it is.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, 6 million's like - it's like your business is worth millions of dollars.

LAMAR: Correct.

VANEK SMITH: More than $100 million, actually - Lunar Embassy has a staff of seven, mostly employers, and a lot of high-profile clients.

LAMAR: There's been a lot of celebrities - Eastwood, Tom Hanks, William Shatner, past presidents.

VANEK SMITH: Like, Clint Eastwood?

LAMAR: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Does Clint Eastwood, like, own property on the moon?

LAMAR: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: Is he, like, maybe near us?

LAMAR: Possibly.

VANEK SMITH: And Chris says nobody - not the government or the U.N. - has ever challenged his business or his ownership claim. But a little healthy competition might be on the horizon - namely NASA.

ATOSSA ARAXIA ABRAHAMIAN: You could argue that what NASA is doing and what the Lunar Embassy is doing is essentially the same thing.

VANEK SMITH: Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist and author who researches property and jurisdictions. And in the course of her research, she came across something really strange - some contracts that NASA had drawn up with a bunch of little private companies.

ABRAHAMIAN: NASA has given a handful of small emergent space companies contracts to go to the moon, gather some materials from the moon. I believe it's called lunar regolith.

VANEK SMITH: Is it just, like, dirt?

ABRAHAMIAN: I mean, it's dirt. But it's really cool outer space dirt.

VANEK SMITH: The contracts state that NASA would then buy the dirt from these companies when they get it back to Earth for not a ton of money.

ABRAHAMIAN: I think the biggest one I saw was, like, a thousand or a few thousand dollars.

VANEK SMITH: So why is NASA doing this? After all, it's planning its own mission to the moon in a couple years - could just get its own dirt instead of getting middlemen involved. But according to Atossa, the logic behind these contracts is very similar to the logic Chris' dad used at the county recorder's office 40 years ago - namely creating a paper trail and trying to establish a legal precedent in a place where property laws are unclear. In the case of NASA, says Atossa, these contracts are establishing that if you bring something back from space, it is then your property.

ABRAHAMIAN: They are establishing a really important precedent that moon dirt can be bought and sold. And not only can it be bought and sold, but it can be bought and sold by earthlings on Earth using earthling dollars. So what they're trying to do is create a market for things that come in from outer space.

VANEK SMITH: Right now, this market isn't worth that much because going to space is really expensive. So even if you found, like, a diamond mine on the moon, it probably wouldn't be profitable to get those diamonds. But, Atossa says, costs of going to space are falling. More private companies are getting in on the game. And with these weird little moon dirt contracts, NASA is establishing an economic precedent for buying and selling stuff from space. For their part, the companies that are spending millions of dollars getting moon dirt only to sell it back to NASA for peanuts, they are getting legitimacy and establishing a business relationship with NASA. In other words, says Atossa, a market is born.

ABRAHAMIAN: I just think it's really cool to just watch an agency and some companies and some machines just basically start a market from scratch. It's fascinating. I feel very privileged to be able to watch this happen. It's almost like watching the wheels of capitalism turn.

VANEK SMITH: Christopher Lamar, president of the Lunar Embassy, is watching these wheels turn as well. He says he worries that the moon and Mars are going to be totally taken over by wealthy companies before any regular people have a chance to get there or claim anything. So Chris is hopeful that some of his millions of lunar landowners, like us, will speak up and help the Lunar Embassy secure its ownership claims.

LAMAR: Before they figured out a way - large corporations, governmental entities positioned themselves towards resource grab - we wanted to have a large enough base of landowners say, hey, no, wait. Wait. Wait.

VANEK SMITH: Say to NASA and these private companies, hey, you can't take those diamonds. That's my lunar land. Get off my crater.

Also, we would love to hear from you. Go to npr.org/indicatorsurvey. That's npr.org/indicatorsurvey. Tell us what you think of this episode, of the show and of some of the special investment opportunities that you only hear about here at THE INDICATOR.

You guys are selling, like, all of Pluto, is that right?

LAMAR: As an - in its entirety, correct.

VANEK SMITH: How much is Pluto?

LAMAR: Two hundred fifty thousand - it's a great investment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Julia Ritchey and Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Michael He and Kaitlyn Nicholas (ph). THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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