The Orange County Register

Opinion: The Navajo Don’t Own the Moon—But Someone Should

January 13, 2024

(The Orange County Register)—This week, the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobiotic Technology sent a rocket toward the moon, carrying cargo from two private companies, and NASA.

As the first commercial launch aimed at the moon’s surface, it was an historic occasion—and cause for celebration among those who would like to see humanity eventually extend its presence to other planets.

But if the Navajo Nation had gotten its way, the rocket wouldn’t have taken off in the first place—at least not with all of its cargo.

Although the launch was not a NASA mission, the Navajo asked the agency to stop the rocket from taking cremated human remains and other forms of human DNA, including the ashes of writer Arthur C. Clarke and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, to the moon, as the two companies (Celestis and Elysium) specializing in that service had arranged. The Navajo consider the moon sacred. According to Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren, putting human remains there is thus “deeply disturbing and unacceptable.”

NASA didn’t intervene, however, and that’s as it should be. One obvious reason is because one group shouldn’t be allowed to use the force of government to impose its religious views on everyone else. Another reason is that the moon doesn’t belong to the Navajo–or, so far, anyone else.

You can’t claim a right to the moon—or a piece of land, or anything else—just by looking at it, admiring it, or declaring it sacred. You can only legitimately exercise property rights over a place—including the right to decide what others can and can’t do there—if you make it your own by mixing your labor with it and exercising control over it, or if the current legitimate owner sells or gives it to you. Philosopher John Locke called this “homesteading” and he was eminently correct in claiming this as the only justification for licit land titles.

A system of property rights that operates in this way allows us to avoid constant conflicts over who controls what, and helps ensure that resources will be used in a way that maximizes benefits for all. So when people do eventually go to the moon and make use of it, they should be able to establish property rights over whatever part of it they control–and then they can decide what is and isn’t appropriate there.

Unfortunately, the Navajo aren’t the only ones who would like to tell space travelers what they can and can’t do. And the others want to stop a lot more than the spreading of some ashes.

For many years, certain environmentalists have argued that celestial bodies should be kept in their “pristine” state, and that humans who explore the moon or other planets should have to leave things exactly as they find them. That would mean humans couldn’t terraform Mars to make it a second home base for humanity. It would also mean that humans couldn’t live on Mars at all, unless they somehow ensured that the environment remained perfectly sterile, with no bacteria or other life from Earth mixing with the natural environment. And mining moons, asteroids, and planets for their abundant minerals would be out of the question.

These environmentalists make clear that they view humanity as a scourge, not only on the Earth, but in the entire universe. We, on the other hand, take the view that the resources of outer space are valuable only because they are valuable to human beings because no other notion of “value” makes any sense. And the way to maximize their value to humans is through private property rights.

We first started writing about “space environmentalism” and property rights in space nearly 20 years ago. At that time, it might have struck some as an amusing academic issue because it didn’t look like anyone was about to go to the moon or other planets anytime soon.

Now the issue is deadly serious, as space travel and exploration have become big business, and Elon Musk is well underway with plans to make humans a “multiplanetary species” by establishing a colony on Mars. He thinks that’s necessary to keep human consciousness alive—and he may be right, as the Earth’s population could be destroyed by a meteor strike or nuclear war at any time.

So now is the time for all who would put humanity first to confront and reject the views of those would seek to stop the productive use of outer space based on their religious or any other beliefs.


Jacob Huebert is president of the Liberty Justice Center. Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a libertarian and adherent of the Austrian school of economics.