GARDNERVILLE, Nev. — Entrepreneur Dennis Hope has turned an apparent loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty into a lucrative business — selling plots of land on the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.
Hope first registered a claim for the moon and planets with the United States, the Soviet government and the United Nations in 1980. Operating as Lunar Embassy, he has been selling plots of extraterrestrial real estate since then.
His business has really taken off since 1996 when he tapped into a global customer base with his Web site at www.lunarembassy.com.
"A lot of people have said that I'm just scamming money from everybody," Hope said. "But it is not about money. It's about a dream — a dream about taking something that didn't exist and allowing it to grow into something that is bigger than this planet has ever seen."
Many earthlings buy the deeds as gag gifts since the going rate for an acre of land on the moon is about $16. Others, however, see it as something that could have great potential value for future family members.
"When I first talked to Dennis, I thought it was a hoax," said Ray Allsip of Gardnerville, the manager at Penguin Plumbing and Electric. "But after he explained it to me, showed me the maps and everything he had done, I figured for the amount of money, why not? If it were to ever become anything more than a novelty, it could be something for your children and grandchildren."
Hope said he has sold land in outer space to more than 1 million people in 73 nations. Much of his business is from Europe.
The United States lags behind the rest of the world in the race to claim the lunar landscape, although two former presidents — Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — have bought lunar land. So have actors Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman.
"Germans are the No. 1 property owners of lunar property on this planet," Hope said. "Germany is No. 1, then Sweden, England, Poland and the United States."
The cost for a piece of the moon has gone up astronomically. Before 2001, Hope sold 17,700-acre tracts for about $16, the price he now charges for one acre.
And there's still a lot of land left to sell. Although Hope has sold 270 million acres on the moon, that's just 2.7 percent of the moon's total surface.
Hope insists that the claims are legal and binding, although some international law experts disagree. It is, however, an argument Hope can have on his cell phone on the way to the bank.
Lunar Embassy's gross profits were $676,000 in 2000. Hope, who recently relocated from Rio Vista, Calif., to Gardnerville, anticipates that could double this year.
Hope was out of work, divorced and headed for a career as an unemployed actor when he got the idea for his out-of-this-world real estate business in 1980.
He looked at the moon one day, flashed back on a political science class he took at Linfield College in Oregon and hatched the idea.
He knew from his Linfield days that the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty had forbidden governments from owning land in outer space — but it said nothing about individuals.
So Hope claimed all the moons and planets in our solar system, sent his claims to the nation's largest governments — the United States and the Soviet Union — and to the United Nations. Then he asked for replies from any of those governments that objected to the claims.
After hearing nothing, he went to work, giving himself the title of "The Head Cheese."
Hope says no one can take him to court over his claims to the moon and planets since the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty also states that earthbound courts have no jurisdiction over matters on the moon.
Others have tried to elbow in on Hope's business, and he said he spent more than $75,000 in legal fees in 2001 protecting it.
"I had two agents that have been taken to court for fraud, for selling properties that they did not own," Hope said. "And in both cases — one in Germany and one in England — both were thrown out due to lack of jurisdiction."
Hope's biggest legal challenge came in 1996 from Germany's Martin Juergens, who claimed he owned the moon since it was awarded to his family in 1562 by Prussia's King Frederick the Second.
Juergens' claim got a lot of media attention in Germany, Hope's largest customer base, and crippled his business. It rebounded after Hope's claim under the Outer Space Treaty was explained on German television.
"In 1967, when the General Assembly of the United Nations was passing the Outer Space Treaty, the German representative didn't stand up and say, 'Excuse me, you have to eliminate the moon from the law because it is owned by Martin Juergens and his family,' " Hope said. "Since the U.N. doesn't recognize it, I guess I won't, either."