Published July 19, 2013
The moon may be a desolate ball of dirt that hasn’t seen human interaction in 40 years, but that hasn’t stopped some real estate moguls from making millions of dollars from it.
Thank Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, or the likes of Virgin CEO Richard Branson, who refers to outer space as the “final frontier,” but people for the first time in several decades are looking at the universe as a conquerable terrain similar to the Wild West.
It has breathed new life into space exploration companies like Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is looking to become the world’s first commercial space line, and is increasing demand on the consumer level for celestial real estate from the moon to Mars.
“There’s a group of people who say, ‘what a beautiful moon tonight,’ but there’s another group who look up and say ‘I really wonder what it’s like up there,’” said David Jackson, North America market director of Luna Society International, an affinity group that sells lunar real estate.
While the company claims no actual ownership of the moon, and while the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967 by more than 100 countries prohibits any sovereign government from taking ownership of celestial bodies, acres on the moon have been selling like hotcakes.
It’s a sign of an improving economy that has revived discretionary spending and a burgeoning private sector that, nearly 44 years to the day since man first stepped on the moon, has breathed new life into space exploration.
In one 24-hour period last week, Jackson said Luna Society inked 326 orders averaging about $50 each for total revenue of $16,715. Momentum has picked up from what Jackson refers to the “dark days” of the 2008 financial crisis, with visitors to its website averaging 1,640 a day and surpassing the 5-million mark last week.
Rival real estate company The Lunar Embassy claims to be growing even faster at 1,500 acres a day, even offering 40-year financing in some cases, according to its website. It also offers chances to buy into exclusive land-related programs, including its Century Club that costs $1,000, as well as purchase deeds for as low as $20 and a “Lunar Explorer DVD” for $50.
Attracting Entrepreneurs, Millionaires and Hotels
Some Luna customers have “zero ambition to actually go" to the moon, Jackson admits, while others look at it from the perspective that “if the project is ever complete,” they’ll have a small stake in it. The company has a presence in Australia, India, France, Japan, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. and sales representatives in Italy, Germany, Croatia and India.
It sells corporate packages to be divvied out as novelty gifts to employees and clients as well as major blocks of lunar land to major hotel companies, millionaires and developers, even selling a chunk of acreage a few years ago to the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim.
Part of the reason for the demand is the land is sold for cheap, particularly when considering the exorbitant price of real estate on Earth. An acre in the Sea of Tranquility -- considered a more prestigious location due to its proximity to the Apollo missions -- goes for about $37.50.
Most people purchase properties as gifts for novelty reasons, while others are entrepreneurial-minded individuals who think it’s a cheap investment that could one day be worth something.
“I honestly have no idea where my plot on the moon is, but I do believe it was an acre for $25 --not a bad investment if it pays off,” said Anthony Setaro, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of a new carbon neutral homebuilding company called Jetsun Homes.
Setaro admits his lunar purchase was more a fun purchase than anything and he knows the plot of land wouldn’t stand up in today’s courts, but he also looks up to innovators like Musk who has long advocated building an 80,000-person colony on Mars.
“What Elon Musk has done with SpaceX in the ten years since space exploration has been privatized is remarkable,” Setaro said. “They’re at the forefront of where space travel is going.”
Free Enterprise: The Drivers of Innovation
Perhaps the U.S. axed the shuttle program to save money or because it felt public interest had dwindled, but the government has admittedly recognized the power of private enterprise for driving innovation -- just look at where it gets much of its tech-savvy artillery: contractors like Honeywell (HON) and Lockheed Martin (LMT).
“When the engine of free enterprise can drive research and development, innovation will flourish,” said Tim Nelson, a lawyer for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom with a focus on cross-border disputes and space law. “You’ve seen it across every single industry and I’m sure that space will be no exception. The law often plays catch up.”
Alan Wasser, chairman of the Space Settlement Institute, a think tank focused on promoting human colonization and settlement of outer space, believes the primary way to get the ball rolling is to make it financially attractive to venture capitalists.
“Since it is risky, it has to have a really good return in a reasonable amount of time,” he said, highlighting the value of real estate versus other lunar assets like moon rocks and minerals.
Yet, in order to incentivize private companies, two key things must happen, he said: affordable, reliable and safe human transport to and from celestial bodies must be developed, and the U.S. or other countries must pass laws recognizing a true permanent lunar settlement's right to claim lunar land, based on actual "use and occupation," so they'd be able to sell parcels back to citizens on Earth.
“Now it suddenly becomes worth going to the moon,” Wasser said.
No country as of now recognizes people’s claim to lunar land, and Philip De Man, a Belgium-based research fellow at the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies at the University of Leuven, says the “overwhelming majority of other space law scholars” think there is “no way” the sale of plots on the moon can be considered legal under international law, even if by private nationals.
“That’s a debate between the political and philosophical and in many ways that’s the unanswerable debate that will go on forever,” Nelson said.
Yet, lunar real estate tycoons like Jackson who are selling hundreds of acres a day, argue in favor of retooling outdated treaties, pointing to their robust sales that underscore an underground market of flourishing lunar demand.
“When we started this people laughed that private companies could go to space at all,” Wasser said. “This idea may have a little while longer to wait but it has come a long way and it has to be done eventually.”
Colonizing the Moon is ‘Technologically Possible’
The Luna Society uses much of its revenue to pay full-time employees and consultants and spends the rest on subsidizing several small-scale space exploration projects. Jackson said the company would like to one-day secure public-private partnerships to help fund bigger endeavors.
“With this project beginning to gain momentum, I'm hoping that we'll be able to convince one of the larger space agencies -- specifically, the Indian Space Research Organisation -- that we would be a strong, viable partner and financial resource,” he said.
Perhaps, Jackson argues, the beginning of colonization can be as simple as dropping off supplies to be used as the skeleton of future infrastructure. The Space Treaty says objects left on the moon remain under their original ownership, and just last week two U.S. Democratic lawmakers proposed declaring the Apollo equipment left on the moon a national park.
“It is possible that new developments, such as the planned colonization of Mars, will require a revision of the existing treaties,” De Man said. “The current trend in international space law … is increasingly moving away from binding treaties toward the adoption of non-binding guidelines.”
As of now, experts say colonizing the moon is “technologically possible,” particularly as new aerospace technologies are developed and 3D printers help make sustainable living more of a reality.
But there remains a complex legal and political debate that could take many years to unravel.