The issue of property rights in space has long been a topic of interest to commercial space advocates, although few others have paid much attention to it over the years. The conventional interpretation has been that private property rights aren’t possible under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nations from claiming the Moon or other celestial bodies. (The 1979 Moon Treaty would explicitly prohibit property rights claims on the Moon, but few nations are parties to that treaty.) Commercial space advocates argue that the lack of a private property rights regime in space has hindered the development of space, since private interests can’t acquire or sell land on the Moon or other bodies, or have assurances that their claims will be respected by others.
One solution, of course, would be for the US to seek to renegotiate, or to withdraw from, the Outer Space Treaty, but that appears unlikely given the treaty’s wide acceptance. In a white paper released Monday by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Rand Simberg argues for an alternative approach. He cites a proposal called the Space Settlement Prize Act that would require US courts and agencies to recognize private claims made on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids that meet certain requirements regarding habitation and transportation. The proposed law gets around the Outer Space Treaty by not having the US claim sovereignty over the territory, only recognize the private claim for the land. That, Simberg argues, is sufficient to provide the property rights certainty needed for commercial space development to flourish.
The white paper goes into greater detail on the proposal, although one element is missing: how to get this proposed legislation through Congress. Space property rights might be of great importance to commercial space advocates and entrepreneurs, but it’s a fringe issue otherwise. Given the current difficulties in Congress of getting all but the most noncontroversial legislation through, it will take a concerted effort by advocates to even get the attention of Congress on a topic that, to most, still seems like a low priority.