How much would it actually cost to buy the Moon?
Admired nightly by all, the Moon has fascinated generations long before its discovery. Regulating the world's floods, the astral body has also become the source of a gold rush with thousands of individuals rushing over a decade to purchase land on the Moon.
Leaving most victims to scams, the Moon is also at the center of the rapidly expanding space business with more legitimate companies than one would think. From Hollywood celebrities to Silicon Valley executives, everyone is trying to monetize the next frontier.
A popular scam that sprung up on the world wide web during its early days was the possibility to buy land on the Moon. Whilst first records of such scams appeared as early as the 1890s, they hadn't developed their planet-wide virality until being exposed to the Internet. As such, private companies, several of which still exist today, offer to sell land on the moon at a bargain rate of $29.95 per acre.
With a total surface area of nearly 9.4 billion acres, buying out all of the land on the Moon would cost a mere $281.5 billion. The same amount would buy one half of Google's parent company, Alphabet or almost all of the shares of social media giant, Facebook. Unfortunately, buying any land on the Moon doesn't translate into any real asset, as many have found out to their dismay.
In return for their purchase, Moon land owners would receive a 'Lunar Deed' and a map of the satellite marking the precise strip of land that they owned. MoonEstates, a UK-based moon land brokerage firm, claimed to CNN that they had sold over 300,000 acres of land on the moon in eight years. This would translate to over $12 million in revenue as per their prices.
Its owner, Francis Williams purchased a license to sell land on the moon from Dennis Hope, a US citizen that claimed ownership of the satellite in 1980 after saying he found a loophole in the UN Outer Space Treaty that prevented countries from owning land there but not individuals. The Nevada-based entrepreneur even filed such a request with the UN, the US and Russia. "I have never heard from them on that note, ever." he told CNN.
Hope estimated that he had sold up to 500 million acres on the Moon, according to an interview with CNN, which would translate to $20 billion. Whilst delirious, some money was indeed made on the Moon land sales scam as their sales website gets up to 100,000 monthly unique visitors to this according to SimilarWeb.
Despite widespread speculation, the Moon does in fact belong to no one at this stage, regardless of how many certificates the pair of realtors sold. In 1967, the UN prevented any country from owning land on the Moon and the 1979 Moon Treaty further stated that all satellites must be used for the good of humanity and not a single country. As technology has developed and space become more accessible, this sector, however, became the subject of controversy.
"At some point the world community needs to come together and draft some new convention or treaty" commented Paul Dempsey, director of the Institute of Air and Space Law. "It is an open wound that needs to be healed." As per the current regulations, countries bear international responsibility for their activities in space, including by the ones led by private organizations with their countries.
Some countries are in fact already looking at making a move for lunar domination. In April 2017, China and Europe confirmed plans to build a base on the moon. "The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place." said Pal Hvistendahl, spokesperson for the European Space Agency. "Space has changed since the space race of the Sixties. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we need international cooperation."
Their conjoined 'Moon Village' could potentially act for Earth as a launching pad for future missions to Mars and other planets. Johann-Dietrich Worner, the project's director also said it could develop space tourism in the future. Since its first manned space flight in 2003, China has upscaled its ambitions in space with missions to the Moon planned in the near future.
Whereas investors in Moon land are unlikely to ever see any asset or benefit transpire from their investments, other, more legitimate companies have recently started focusing heavily on space. One of these became the billionaire founder of InfoSpace, Naveen Jain who started Moon Express, a company aimed at mining the Moon for minerals.
In August 2016, Moon Express became the first private company to receive permission from the FAA to land a craft on the surface of the Moon. Initially shooting to win Google's $30 million prize for the first company to land a craft on the Moon, the startup says it will continue aiming to do so despite the competition being discontinued by the search giant.
"From our perspective, it doesn't really matter that much, because we started Moon Express fundamentally because it's a good business, and that does not change." Jain told his followers following the prize being shut down last week. "Our hope is that we'll still be able to land on the moon this year. And if it goes to next year, so be it. We're so close to making it happen."
Moon Express is, however, not the only company looking to take part in the Galactic space rush whilst its legal ownership ground rules remain in the grey area. Deep Space Industries (DSI) is working on creating autonomous spacecraft that could extract materials from asteroids. Backed by Google billionaires, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Planetary Resources is aiming to start prospecting asteroids in 2020.
According to financial services site Motley Fool, the mineral wealth of the Moon sits somewhere between $150-$500 quadrillion, enough to create over 500m billionaires down on Earth. Amongst its coveted assets is Helium-3, a rare element on Earth that could be used to fuel nuclear fusion plants. Asteroids, on their end, often hold iron, nickel, cobalt, platinum and titanium in large quantities.
As private companies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin keep improving their reusable rocket technology, fuel increasingly becomes the largest cost of going into space, making up 90% of the craft's weight. "Water is the fuel of space." said Meagan Crawford, VP of strategic communications for DSI. "The constituent parts are liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen - that's rocket fuel."
"Mining has such negative connotations - people think you're destroying things.. This is more like harvesting." added Jain. Ultimately, the end goal of companies such as these is to harvest available space resources and consume them in space to create infrastructure that would impossible in other climates. Recently researchers started a petition for a lunar village that would replace the International Space Station.
Valued at $21.5 billion, SpaceX raised $450 million in funding last year alone and this kind of money flowing into the space ecosystem has created the need for ample regulation. Far from the $30/acre Moon land scam, hyper-funded space startups have led Obama to passing the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in November 2015.
The legislation, which still complies with the UN's initial Space Treaty, lets any company that extracts any materials they found in outer space retain ownership of the materials found. "The cost of space transportation will have to come down drastically before it becomes economical to transport minerals to Earth from asteroids." detailed William Ostrove, aerospace analyst at Forecast. "If colonies on the Moon or Mars become a reality, it may be cheaper to mine resources on asteroids rather than transport them from Earth. But that's also decades away."
“When Steve Jobs asked people what apps they wanted to see on the iPhone, not a single person said ‘Hey, I would like to throw the birds at the pigs’” Jain told the Guardian “But that’s what people did. Once we land there, someone else will build the Angry Birds and Pokémon Go of the moon.”
Although the costs of getting into the space race have never been higher for companies, this is also the first time in humanity's history that investments into the space could actually produce returns. Far from the land on the Moon scams, billionaires and venture capitalists have invested heavily to colonize space and some believe they may just be able to pull it off.