Lunar Land Grants Discussion

Over on the Space Business Blog, my good friend Colin Doughan has had a few posts discussing the concept of lunar land grants. While I haven’t had the time to read all of the comments, I do have to admit to having a few issues with the concept proposed:

  • The land grant size proposed is too big–about 4x the surface area of California for a single base.  While this allows you to raise lots of money off of a pretty crappy land valuation ($40B raised at $100/acre), I still have to wonder if you’d really be able to sell this.  I mean, what’s the value other than speculation for any of the land parcels much more than say 10-20 miles beyond the base?  Here on earth, where you can breath the air, and where the dust isn’t viciously abrasive, it still takes a huge amount of effort to bring even a reasonable fraction of that land area into productive use.  I think a better strategy would be sticking with more reasonable land area grants (say tied to the distance you can travel on the ground in a day or two), with the goal being to charge a higher value per acre over a smaller number of acres.
  • I just can’t help feeling this is super premature.  Part of why land prices on the Moon in this scheme are assumed to be low is that it isn’t clear how we’d make money on the Moon, and our methods of reaching the Moon are still utterly primitive and barbaric.  Once we have things like depots, and have had some robotic landers on the lunar surface, and maybe commercial crew in LEO and a few other things (ie sometime in the next 10 years), we might actually be close enough to a lunar venture that this might be more useful.
  • That said, once we’re ready for it, having something like this in place might not be a bad way to help raise revenue for the initial venture.  I’m just worried that if we jump the gun too far, the more likely result is going to be people getting burned, and investors getting a bad taste in their mouth for lunar ventures.

Just some quick thoughts.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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23 Responses to Lunar Land Grants Discussion

  1. Robert says:

    There are two pieces of moon that will be absolutely invaluable: The poles are where it is at.

    perpetual sunlight (excepting earth eclipses), with dark shadows for radiators, constant communication access to earth, likely water-rich regolith, and the only spots where you can place a hammer-throw type surface based spinning tether lunar launcher (the cheapest way of launching from the moon’s surface).

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    While the lunar poles are good real estate, they aren’t the only places on the Moon that will be interesting.


  3. kert says:

    Guys, when the next scheduled Lunar lander, the Chinese Chang’e 3, touches down, it will have been 37 years from the last soft landeer, which was Soviet Luna 24.

    Put this into a perspective, when discussing all this far-fetched stuff.
    How about making sure that we still have a hang of it first, and then figure out how exactly are we going to capitalize on it ?

  4. mike shupp says:

    What might be done is to set up one or more quasi-privatized “lunar development corporations” akin to Comsat. People or companies could buy shares in a LDC which had a claim on say 500,000 sq miles of the moon (said claim being created by landing people on the moon, establishing a base, providing affordable transportation to the moon and back,etc. as in the existing proposal). The LDC could exploit lunar resources on its own hook or lease out sections of its land claim to other corporations or individuals, or tax products made by other companies operating in its territory, or whatever. The LDC could employ its own resources (spacecraft, personnel, etc.) or purchase material and services from other entities.
    The LDC might be given special tax treatment or subsidies should the US government choose. LDC claims would be registered by some international entitiy; various treaties might be created to ensure that claims by multiple LDCs do not overlap (the treaties that govern Antarctic operations might be a useful precedent). Et cetera.

    Creating draft legislation for LDCs is of course the easy part. Pricing shares initially and generating income that would actually allow operation would be more difficult. Building lunar rockets and bases and factories and keeping people alive Up There is merely dull technical detail.

    Getting the rest of the world to go along with the idea would be the most difficult part; setting up a couple of LDCs aimed specfically at investors and ordinary citizens of countries without manned space programs might mollify 3rd world objections. (Americans tend to feel the Moon Treaty is a dead letter since the USA never ratified it, but there are quite a lot of countries which did ratify it, and it’s been US policy since the 1960’s to act as the Moon Treaty is valid, so setting up LDCs which look too much like US corporations would likely generate a lot of international ill will.)

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah, as I said, this is all very premature. It might be useful stuff to have done at some point, but I have a hard time seeing it making an positive difference in the near term.


  6. “In late 2008, Chen Qiufa (deputy Minister of MIIT and head of SASTIND) indicated that Chang’e 3 Lunar Rover would launch in late 2011.”

    “In 2009, the 2013 launch date is confirmed, for a landing craft and rover called Chang’e-3.”

    They’re currently slipping 2 years for every 1.

  7. Bill Parkyn says:

    The natural law of homesteading applies on every frontier, when the first arrivals set up shop:
    the settlers’ economic activity utilizes valuable territory that thereby becomes theirs, especially as they invest in developing it. On the Moon, real-estate with 24-hr sunlight and nearby ice deposits would be primo. Developing it would include solar towers with tracking mirrors for illuminating underground greenhouses and for powering ore-processing factories, electric monorail ground transport, and propellant manufacturing. Whatever lunar acreage that supports these activites thus belongs to the occupiers, backed up by the strength of their defenses. It is their exports that give the territory its value. The recipients on Earth use the legal system to tie these on-site phsical realities to the abstractions embodied in a piece of paper back on Earth, certifying ownership of lunar acreage. Without the immanent prospect of the above scenario, such paper is totally meaningless, just another Star Registry.

  8. JohnHunt says:

    Is this premature? Probably yes. But the main reason that this is being proposed at this time is because it is assumed that there is not enough value now for private ventures to be willing to risk all of the up front capital to start developing the technology necessary to make portions of the moon valuable. So it’s kind of a catch-22.

    To me, this is where the government should step in. By investing substantial resources up front and opening up a cis-lunar transportation system, the government can make the barriers to participation much less expensive from there on. Immediately the value of the land would go up. At this point you wouldn’t have to be giving away enormous amounts of land in order to raise enough capital to finance a venture.

    I personally think that NASA should take SpaceX up on its suggestion to land 1,000 kg on the lunar surface for $80 million. Robonauts with a wheeled base are about 300 kg. Regolith extraction and processing units would mass well under 1,000 kg. The same would hold true for ISRU units. And if you want to go all out, a one-man lunar lander could come in as low as 580 kg.

    With multiple tele-operated robonauts and spare parts for the various equipment, NASA could build up a base onto which could be bootstrapped any number of commercial ventures.

  9. Mike Lorrey says:

    The thing you need to understand is that state-sized land grants from the sovereign is how the US was created. Each of the original 13 colonies was granted to an individual or group to undertake the risk of colonization. They, in turn, as the proprietors of the colony, granted township sized grants to groups of speculators/investors who promised to market/promote and attract people to settle in those towns, typically by granting those people smaller grants (typically 100-200 acres) on the guarantee that the settlers would clear 5 or more acres and build one building per 100 acres granted within 5 years.

    As an example, the territory of NH, VT, and Maine was originally granted to two fellows, Mason and Georges. Georges got Maine and Mason got NH/VT aka “the New Hampshire Plantations”. While Massachusetts tried to horn in on the territory, as did New York later in Vermont, leading to the Vermont revolution and its declaration as an independent nation before the US Declaration of Independence, NH’s Royal Governor eventually bought Mason’s grant from his family so he could survey and establish township grants to various groups of friends and business associates.

    So, Doughan’s proposal is right in line with the history of land grants and colonization. It takes this sort of multi-level marketing structure to attract a lot of risk taking entrepreneurs interested in getting out from under whatever power structure they’re stuck in and motivated to create a new society of their own.

  10. Jon,

    You say such land grant legislation is premature – why? Are you worried about a consortium being unable to successfully establish a base or being unable to profitably sustain a lunar base? I have both of these worries. BUT, here’s the big follow-up question, could a failure in either scenario really sour the world’s investors from investing in space?

    I personally believe with the winning of the Ansari X-Prize, success of SpaceX, investment from Abu-Dhabi, NASA’s switch to commercial LEO, and many other examples, the momentum is too strong for one failure (even a big failure like a failed moon base) to disrupt our future in space.

    I agree our current capabilities are barbaric. I agree we need depots (in fact, such legislation may be the best possible way to promote depot development). But I am convinced that with large profit motives, people find creative solutions to challenging problems. This is no different – waiting until the problem is not so challenging is a silly reason to wait. Now is the time to make people stretch – when it is hard, not when it is easy. IMHO. Great Discussion! Thanks.

  11. Jon:

    But I do agree with you on concerns of giving up 4% of lunar surface as a land grant for a single base. This may be the right amount of land (maybe not), but you would want to be very careful about how you wrote the law. By making provisions for how much of any one pole a new lunar base is able to claim is one of several smart considerations for any land claims recognition legislation.

    Another concern I have been discussing on SpaceBusinessBlog, is a consortium setting up a base, selling the land grants, and then abandoning the base as soon as the land grants were sold to the public (never seeking out long term base profitability). The investors walk away with $40B (less the financing for base construction and a limited number of resupply missions) and the land owners face the real possibility US courts would no longer acknowledge their land claim.

    Whenever the right time is to pursue this legislation, we need to draft the law with great care.

  12. Mike Lorrey says:

    That sort of abandonment scenario is something that clearly has precedent under US law, akin to a developer abandoning construction of streets, water and sewer and power lines, after selling parcels in the development. Even if the lunar settlement were to operate as a sovereign entity, all they have to do is sign onto the Hague Conventions on Legal Process. Once they do, if they have their own judicial proceedings on the moon that issue summonses, etc. the US government is obligated to serve those papers on individuals in their territory (this sort of thing I have professional experience with so while I’m not a lawyer, I know this law inside and out), and even extradite individuals who fail to appear and earn a warrant.
    Of course, whether the US govt would be able to transport a prisoner to the moon on their own vehicles, or in coach seats on a Dragon capsule, is another issue entirely…

  13. PeterH says:

    Suppose the US government passes law regarding lunar land grants, what about all the other governments on Earth?

  14. Paul says:

    If the US grants title, then those activities are recognised under US jurisdiction, in US courts. That’s enough for anything you are likely to worry about* in the short-term; because nearly everything comes from the US, via this Lunar Development Corp. (If it works as intended.)

    (*Inter-title disputes. Your mining interferes with my astronomy, etc.)

    Russia, China and India are the only nations that will eventually be outside that system. And for some time, their missions will only be flags’n’footprints and probes’n’rovers.

    Since the moon is a big place, it will be some time before different nations’ activities interfere. When that happens, the Lunar Development Corp will have a lead, other nations will be in weaker positions (ie, your robot processing plant vs my mining town, you will lose, “power cable? what power cable?”, if it gets that bad.) Thus they are more likely to negotiate treaties of mutual recognition of claims. (After first playing international politics with smaller nations, to try to improve their diplomatic position.)

    And those treaties give you the basis for an ad hoc international system of “Land title”. The fourth and fifth nations to launch such ventures will be entering “occupied territory” if they don’t sign the treaty with the existing players.

  15. mike shupp says:

    PeterH —

    Go to Wikipedia and read up on the Moon Treaty, then read between the lines. (What WOULD Chileans and Mexicans think of American industrial enterprises on the Moon? How would they react in the UN and in trade agreement discussions?)

    Sorry to be so curt, but beyond that statement, anything I might say here would be editorializing…

  16. Ed Minchau says:

    Signatory nations to the Outer Space Treaty or Moon Treaty would have problems establishing land grants or lunar development corporations. They’d need to opt out of the treaties, a one-year process, and be faced with all sorts of ill-informed BS from around the world all the way.

    Instead, if someone goes out there and stakes out their claim, it would not violate either treaty for the US (or Canada, or Liberia, or whomever) to recognize the validity of the claim.

  17. Jim Gagnon says:

    Yes, without withdrawing from the Treaty on Outer Space or modifying it, this plan is a violation of the treaty terms. With that given, I applaud the effort to create a land rush in space. I don’t think the land grant sizes are too big at all; in fact, I would set up a system where the first moon base would get an even bigger parcel, and any mission that returned at least one kilogram of moon material would get a grant, with manned missions getting more. That way, first pioneers are rewarded both in progressive exploration and in having the first base.

    However, to do merely this while keeping everything under international law is missing an opportunity. Human affairs in outer space are and will be unique; if you’re going to revisit the Treaty on Outer Space, you should take opportunity and create the Federation of Space Fairing Nations so that you have an organization sensitive and tuned to realities of outer space.

  18. Paul says:

    The Moon Treaty doesn’t really apply, since no space-faring nation has ratified it. And India is the only space capable nation that has even signed it. The Outer Space Treaty has been signed by everyone of note, but is less restrictive.

    The loophole, IMO, is that the US is responsible under the treaty for any mission it launches. (Presumably, it can also indemnify a launching nation for a US payload.) Therefore granting title for development only counts under US law, between US parties; it is not an international claim of sovereignty, but an internal system.

    If it works, and an LDC results in significant development of lunar resources, then, as I said above, I think it puts the US in a position to negotiate mutual-recognition-of-claims treaties with other nations, eventually resulting in a new Moon/Outer-Space Treaty that is somewhat less feel-good-but-paralysing.


  19. Mike Lorrey says:

    Well the US isn’t, so far as I know, obligated to the Moon Treaty, that was a propaganda move by the soviets to make us look like running dog imperialists if we set up a permanent presence there…. Even there, that treaty is only against an earthly state claiming the moon as its territory. It says nothing about recognising the settlement claims made by private parties. There is no treaty provision against private claims.

    I am greatly amused whenever some leftard starts chanting the Moon Treaty mantra without checking the ratification status.

  20. Axel says:

    mike shupp suggested: “Go to Wikipedia and read up on the Moon Treaty” and I did (a bit). Somewhere I heard a space vehicle is under the jurisdiction of the state it is launched from. So if Kistler launches from Woomera / Australia, they are under Australian jurisdiction and hence bound to the Moon Treaty? And entitled to request their share of all resources mined and made on the moon by US settlers, resources which rightfully belong to all mankind? Legal US pirates from Australia? Makes a great SF story 😉

    My impression is, it is not too early to promote serious discussion on this topic. And I hope everyone doing it will be wise enough to harmonize the solution internationally. If US courts acknowledge property rights, but international law does not – what would this mean for international investors?

    Alan Wasser on assumes international acceptance will follow. I think a lot of ill will and irritation could be avoided if it is done simultaneously. Do not underestimate how offended “minor” countries will feel by such a we-own-the-world attitude of the US.

    The difference between a land grant and acknowledging a claim is subtle, but seems to be essential to Alan Wassers plan. However, claiming 4% of the moon just because someone “established a permanently inhabited settlement on the Moon […], with regular transportation between the settlement and the Earth open to any paying passenger” is not very convincing to me.

    If someone builds a mine, a farm etc. on the moon, with some housing, streets, landing areas, launch pads etc. then I have no doubt he/she/it has a right to “own” this facility. However if someone places a module on the moon in which one person lives and supply is sent on a regular basis of – say – once per decade, and everyone paying the ticket price of – say – seven trillion dollars will be transported there with the next regular supply ship… does that justify the claim of a million square kilometers? I don’t buy it. Not even if a proper definition of “settlement”, “regular transportation” etc. is supplied.

    Just replacing “land grant” with “acknowledged land claim” won’t do the trick. Maybe the consortium doing the settling can publish a land development plan and sell options or shares? If they can plausibly demonstrate they can do moon land development affordable or even profitable, those options/shares will be worth something. If everyone thinks they are a fraud, they will be worthless. No complicated law necessary to ensure this.

    Yes, it is tempting to make a law that raises funds by selling something that belongs to no-one. “Working with fantasies” here, are we?

    But buying land that is not yet developed and can not belong to anyone until it is developed from someone who did not prove he will develop the land? I’d rather buy a “novelty gift” certificate from the Lunar Embassy. It’s cheaper and I won’t be disappointed if it turns out to be worthless.

    Sorry for being a spoil sport again, but in the end I have to agree with Jon: it is too early to seriously start such a development scheme.

  21. mike shupp says:

    Axel —

    Amusing thought about a SF story. I suspect — IANASL — that while normally any cargo on a rocket launched from Australia would be covered by Australian space laws, a request to be covered by US law would be accommodated. Suppose, for example, the USAF decided to launch a classified satellite from Woomera — likely the security procedures and many of the launch and checkout operations would be performed by Americans, or by Australians following USAF regulations. This strikes me as reasonable anyhow.

    The “offended minor countries” strike me as the problem here. It is perfectly true, as various people have enjoyed pointing out, that the US didn’t sign the Moon Treaty and isn’t bound by the fact that say Uruguay did. We can blow the Uruguayans off, acting like the Yanqui imperialists they see daily on their television sets. BUT Uruguay has a vote in the UN and every so often the US would like Uruguay to vote for something we’ve submitted. Maybe we’d like Uruguay to share our opinion that waterboarding is not torture and should not be condemned by the UN, for instance — it’s surely no accident that the US got roped into the Outer Space Treaty during the middle of the Viet Nam War. So this is a political problem for the US, not a legal one — one that Britain, Russia, and the other non-signers of the Moon Treaty just don’t share.

    As for the likelihood this scheme would work… I reserve judgement. A 1000 x 500 sq mile lunar plot would hold 320 million acres — one for each resident of the US, which seems a fair amount. Whether this would bring in 64 billion bucks seems a bit more problematical. I can conceive of Lockheed Martin, for example, taking a 3 million dollar flyer on a 5 x 5 sq mile chunk of lunar land, but it would take 20 thousand Lockheeds
    to buy all that land; I don’t think that many corporations are interested in asserting their future in space. But I might be wrong, and if I’m not, we can at least tell those angry Uruguayans that there is still plenty of space for them at the lunar table.

    Next question: suppose while the American investors are setting up their scheme, the Europeans start up a similar one selling lunar land at 50 Euros per hectare, and the Chinese start one selling land mostly to Chinese for ten percent of the American cost? Realistically, the Chinese are a lot closer to reaching the moon than any set of current American investors, and the Chinese have lots of experience with mixed “free enterprise” cum “state run” business…. More SF stories!

  22. brobof says:

    Jonathan sorry about coming to the debate late! Some thoughts here:
    That being said, this is why I am so much in favour of the NEO colonialism version of ObamaVision. Rather than Moon Base Bush. Clearly the Moon Treaty cannot be applied to NEOs or MBOs and I would argue the OST cannot be applied to NEOs discovered after its ratification. Clearly these are ‘new lands’ rather than existing ‘celestial bodies’ and for the most part too small to be called anything better than ‘debris’. Whereas a Nationalistic or Corporate Polar Lunar Land Grab would lead to conflict; a similar rush to Near Earth could be beneficial. Firstly the distances involved prevent direct clashes. Secondly the impetus would spawn a multitude of space efforts both national and corporate. Thirdly the initiative would vastly speed up the detection and characterisation of any PHAs and finally engender a new Treaty vide Law of the Sea Convention and the International Seabed Authority.
    Previously characterised bodies would be subject to exploration rights in the same way that oil drilling companies pay to test drill today. Probes landing on or even recovering uncharacterised bodies would gain clear title. new claims could be placed by landing a flag (transponder) with say 20 years to exploit the resource either in situ or by recovery. I could go on but all of this was covered in the 1940’s and 50’s by Ley or Heinlein or Williamson…
    Seetee anyone!

  23. A_M_Swallow says:

    Due to the way Near Earth Objects (NEO) orbit the sun they normally turn into Far Earth Objects (FEO). Unfortunately the high delta-V and distances make is hard to get resources back from FEO.

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