LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Moon prices may soon grow unworldly.
Dennis Hope, a California entrepreneur who first laid claim to the entire moon in 1980, is gearing up to jack the prices of land on Earthíslone natural satellite.
Exploiting what he calls a loophole in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty -- which forbids nations, but not individuals, from appropriating the moon and other celestial bodies -- Hope has quietly sold parcels on the moon to some 300,000 people through his Rio Vista, California company, Lunar Embassy.
Broken down into 1,777.58-acre "ranches," the plots sell for $27.15, including shipping and handling. That works out to little more than a penny an acre.
But Hope now wants to grow his business internationally, and has begun signing up exclusive agents -- at more than $50,000 a pop -- to peddle lunar lots overseas. The prices will remain roughly the same, but what it will buy shrinks to but a single acre.
The first international agent, a Canadian, hung out her shingle in February. And just last week, a couple living in a Cornish fishing village began selling off the 90,000 acres they bought from Hope to moon-eyed buyers in the United Kingdom. Hope seeks to have 25 exclusive agents the world around by next year.
"Dennis has just made a huge change in his strategy. Itís really since the advent of the internet that heís realized how much this is worth worldwide," said Sue Williams, who, with her husband Francis, is now selling acre-sized plots of the moon to buyers in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Hope said he would cease selling the larger lots by December 26, and hawk only the 1-acre parcels through his "lunar ambassadors."
"It creates a tremendous amount of frustration to sell ranch-sized pieces of property, when ambassadors are selling 1 acre for the same price," Hope said.
Of course, to call the legality of selling off the moon -- and the planets, since Hope claims to own those, too -- a legally gray area is an understatement. To his credit, Hope said he has pursued every avenue to ensure the legality of his business.
"Weíre doing everything in our power to make this as legitimate as can be," said Hope, who admits the operation began as a tongue-in-cheek lark. It has since grown into a lucrative business, bringing in $1.6 million over the last 20 years.
The 1979 Moon Treaty forbade ownership of the moon -- including by any individual -- but was not signed by any spacefaring nations.
Even so, experts said Hope might as well being selling pieces of Antarctica.
"Itís basically the same law," said John Pike, a space policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "The bottom line is, he canít own property on the moon unless heís got a government to back him up. No one is claiming sovereignty rights on the moon. And if any government did, Iíd be very skeptical that any other government would recognize that claim."
But commercial interest in the moon, long the private domain of government-sponsored exploratory missions, is heating up fast. And with it,pressure could grow for some sort of international clarification on extraterrestrial property rights, said Pat Dasch, executive director of the National Space Society.
In the United States alone, at least a dozenprivate ventures are looking at ways to reach the moon commercially, including efforts by SpaceDev, Idealab, TransOrbital and LunaCorp.
Add to the mix the 6 million people worldwide Hope dreams will become lunar land owners by yearend, and the potential enormity of the lunar legal question grows.
"This has to be clarified. Itís a bit like space tourism: Weíre past the giggle factor," said Dasch, who advocates the formation of some international statute that would permit some sort of land registry. "Weíre beginning to see the lack of definition creating problems for space development."
Pike said that clarification would come only when corporations -- say, someone like Russian energy giant OAO Gazprom -- were actually ready to begin exploiting the moon. Only at that point -- still decades off, Pike said -- would nations be pushed to formalize any lunar law, pushing aside claims like Hopeís.
"The notion that some guy in California has printed up deeds to the moon and sold them to citizens will have no legal standing whatsoever," Pike said.
In the absence of any such challenge, Hope said he would continue selling the moon, as well as parcels on Mars, Venus and Io.
"We let people know if governments donít want us to do this, stop us," Hope said.