On January 13, 2012, the Quebec City courthouse heard a case brought by a man named Sylvio Langevin. Mr. Langevin filed not one, but several, lawsuits claiming to be the owner of the moon, planets Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, as well as the four larger moons of Jupiter. In addition, he asked the court to extend ownership rights to Neptune and Pluto and the space between each planet to the end of the galaxy. Mr Langevin, after finding some newspaper articles about Mercury and Jupiter, as well as some technical information from NASA, saw an opportunity to seek the titles of the heavenly bodies as there was no registered owner. After additional rounds of much added information that he believed to bolster his case, a judgement was rendered as follows. “In regards to Mr. Sylvio Langevin’s two applications presently before the court, nothing more need be said of it except to repeat the words of my brother Mr. Justice Etienne Parent who, disposing of the application regarding the planet Mars and the moon, wrote: “Relying strictly on the pleadings, the application of the plaintiff has no legal basis and must be dismissed.” The claim made by Mr. Langevin in regards to Earth is on that same basis dismissed as is all those regards to other planets in the solar system.”
The strange case of Mr. Langevin was so outrageous that the official legal name of the decision was dubbed Langevin.Although this is a strange case indeed, it is far from the only lawsuit of its’ kind that our legal system has seen. In fact, the US Supreme Court has seen many strange cases. Nix v Hedden sought to categorize the tomato as a fruit rather than a vegetable for tax purposes. In the case of Coates v Cincinnati, the court was asked to define what could be construed as “annoying”. And Rowan v US Post Office, the appellants claimed that the Postal Revenue and Federal Salary Act of 1967, which required businesses to allow people to opt out of receiving erotic mail, infringed on their free speech.
No doubt, some of the strangest cases have come to the court have been to solve matters of space law. Mr. Langevin’s case is certainly not without precedent. “Every now and then, someone thinks no one has claimed the moon before, and then rushes to claim it,” wrote Virgiliu Pop, a space law researcher at the Romanian Space Agency, in an email to Wired. “Humankind has a short collective memory, so the claimant is able to create some buzz before the story dies out — to be followed by a similar story, years later.”
Not limited to today’s courts, these cases can be found through the far reaches of history. In one of the earliest such cases, Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia in the 1700’s, was said to have sought help from a healer and in return for the cures he received, Frederick the Great bequeathed the moon to the healer’s family until the end of time. This may be one story that would not have seen the light of day if it were not for one of the healer’s descendants, who attempted to claim the ownership of the moon in 1996. That case was also dismissed.
Perhaps one of the most interesting stories is that of James Thomas Mangan, who in 1949 founded the Nation of Celestial Space in Evergreen Park, Illinois and laid claim to everything in space. After sending letters to 74 nations inviting them to give him official recognition, he applied for membership with the UN in 1948. The international organization rejected his application. Over the years, Mangan needed to defend his nation’s sovereignty over space from several other contestants, including a student from Tennessee who registered the “southern half of outer space”, an inmate in Alcatraz who claimed his grandfather had been charged rent for sunlight by Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and even the USSR. Mr. Manganbelieved that the launch of Sputnik in 1957 was trespassing on his territory. But he was also generous with his powers, issuing a license for banking on the moon to the president of Chicago’s Beverly Bank and presenting official moon passports to the Apollo astronauts.
Though Mangan died in 1970, he passed control of Celestia to his son, James, and his daughter, Ruth. His grandchildren currently oversee the nation.
As we know, legally and matter-of-factly speaking, no one owns the moon or other celestial bodies. Although the laws that govern space are evolving, the ownership of space is not likely to change anytime soon. So with an eye toward the future, and the laws of space, we will surely see more strange cases headed to our courts keeping judges, lawyers and the press very busy. After all, who doesn’t love a good story?
Quote and story about Mr Mangan: https://www.wired.com/2012/06/space-cases/