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I see two parallels to the forthcoming lunar exploration and human colonisation:

  • The influx of Europeans to America in the 17th Century.
  • The division of, and disputes about, ownership of Antarctica.

In the first, nation-states who were at war in Europe just continued warring in the New World. To the victor went the spoils. In the second, a less belligerent kind of diplomacy has left us with disputed, overlapping claims.

Will countries (or corporations) go to war over its resources? Will ownership of it simply be handed to a non-profit like IANA by a body such as the United Nations, and this non-profit then divvy up the moon on a need-by-need basis?

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  • $\begingroup$ Ownership and sovereignty are two different issues. $\endgroup$ – Erik Dec 9 '14 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ @mins The title deeds to the Milky Way are available at the to view at the Local Group administrative office in the Andromeda galaxy at any time you like. $\endgroup$ – Nicholas Shanks Jun 21 '15 at 7:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Nicholas Yes. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard' $\endgroup$ – Aron Jun 22 '15 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ According to Bing Crosby, it belongs to everyone. youtube.com/watch?v=WKYYvJ0cRvc $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 11 '16 at 15:53
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While obviously the question does not have a single distinct answer There are some existing examples that can lead us to some conclusions

Per the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 - No one owns the moon; "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."

Antarctic being similar to the moon, in having no aborigines, and being rather difficult to get to and survive at, has an existing treaty and some conflicting claims.

Lastly as pointed out the fictional work "The Man Who Sold the Moon" by Robert A. Heinlein, if you want to own it, all you have to do is buy it.

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Strictly speaking, no one owns the moon, per the Moon Treaty, and should be administered by international law (AKA, the United Nations). Of course, the Moon Treaty hasn't been ratified by any of the major players in Manned Spaceflight, so it strictly doesn't apply.

Practically speaking, I would assume the moon will follow the squatters rights principal, he who first lands on the Moon will claim some reasonable area for them to do their work, and so on. When enough people have done this, then a better framework will be in place to manage it, much as was done in most periods of colonization.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Moon Treaty covers sovereignty -- not ownership of the resources. $\endgroup$ – Erik Dec 9 '14 at 20:53
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Have a look at my answer to a similar question: Have any countries laid claim to territory in space?

It is most likely that property claims will eventually cause trouble. Today, the Moon is just too far away for causing any trouble, so it is save to ignore it.

Antarctica is a useful example for this philosophy. Although there are tons of territorial claims there and although Argentina for instance even keeps a military presences manned at all time, disputes have never resulted in military action yet. Instead, Antarctica became protected under the United Nation's Antarctica treaty. The fun part is, that it is just technologically complicated to make use of resources there, so nobody defended claims. On the contrary, the treaty explicitly becomes "open for review" in the 2040s - once technology has seen a significant improvement. Guess, what will happen next ...

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As others have noted, there are a couple of international treaties that say that no nation owns or can own the Moon. Whether anyone will care about those treaties by the time technology reaches the point where it would actually be possible for anyone to live on the Moon or make use of it in any realistic way is a very different question.

It wasn't until I read PearsonArtPhoto's post here that I learned that none of the countries who have actually launched spacecraft have ratified the treaty. (Hey, I learned something today!) So that makes it pretty irrelevant. But even if tomorrow the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, whomever, all ratified it, those nations may not even exist by the time someone wants to build a lunar colony, and if they do, they might simply renounce the treaty as out-dated.

Like, does anyone today pay any attention whatsoever to the Treaty of Tordesillas? Back in 1494, Spain and Portugal signed a treaty dividing the New World between them. Does anyone imagine that that treating is binding on the United States and Canada today?

Realistically, when technology reaches the point that a lunar colony is possible, I think someone will just plant the colony and declare that they own that little piece of the Moon. Then others will follow and divide it up. If we're lucky, the Moon will end up being carved up among various nations on a first-come/first-served basis. More likely, if it proves valuable enough economically or politically, wars will be fought to establish the borders. Barring some sudden and dramatic change in human nature unprecedented in history.

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  • $\begingroup$ Heinlein suggests that Earth governance of a lunar colony will be short lived. $\endgroup$ – James Jenkins Dec 9 '14 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesJenkins Maybe. Americans tend to think that colonies will naturally and inevitably become independent, because that's what happened in our own case. But remember that the colonial era in North America lasted from 1492 to 1776 -- 284 years. The time from the first European colonies to independence was longer than the time from independence to today. Alaska and Hawaii started out as essentially U.S. colonies but instead of becoming independent, they went in the opposite direction: they became fully-integrated parts of the larger nation. $\endgroup$ – Jay Dec 10 '14 at 14:16

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