Space: Buying space that is out of this world

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The Independent Online
Psst! Wanna buy three square miles of land for pounds 12? Uninterrupted views, no planning permission required. But bring your own air - and a rocket; the land's on Mars, and the space-estate agents say they're doing a roaring trade ... Charles Arthur, Science Editor, investigates.

Dennis Hope's business card reads "Head Cheese", and he and his eight employees have a very formal address: the Lunar Embassy, Rio Vista, California. If you ask nicely, he'll sell you land on the Moon. And on Mars too, if you want.

So far, he says, more than 25,000 people around the world (including Hollywood celebrities and two past US presidents - one being Ronald Reagan) have bought 2,000-acre plots of land on the two heavenly bodies from him at $19.95 apiece.

Why is the 49-year-old Mr Hope, a former car salesman, ventriloquist and shoeshine boy, doing this? Because, he says, he has the freehold: he claimed it in 1980, and though the United Nations prohibited any nation from laying claim to celestial bodies, it said nothing about individuals. Well, there was a UN decree about "no individual making profit from celestial bodies", but only five nations signed it, and the US wasn't among them. "The US said it would ... see what public opinion was on the matter. What we're doing is developing public opinion," Mr Hope says.

Buying the land also earns you a parchment deed, Martian Bill of Rights and site map, and is the way for people to tell governments that while the meek may inherit the Earth, the quick-footed are negotiating mineral rights in the solar system. So far they have bought 15,000 square miles of Mars and 60,000 on the Moon. Of course, the sunny side is going first.

However, Mr Hope has competition - including four US-based groups, and Graham Hamilton, a 16-year-old schoolboy in Devon, who is reselling plots bought from Mr Hope via his own Website but at about 1,000 times the price - pounds 3 per acre, though with a 20p donation per sale to Childline.

One particular rival is The Martian Consulate, allegedly based in North Wales, Pennsylvania. Mr Hope has subtly altered his Website so that anyone searching the Web for the Martian Consulate will also be offered the Lunar Embassy's earthly site.

What, though, happens when spaceships like Mars Pathfinder land? "That's on my property right now," says Mr Hope. "But ... we deem [these areas] celestial reserves so nobody can own them to charge landing fees." Nasa is no doubt grateful.

One question remains: why is his official title "Head Cheese"? "Because when I was a child I was told the moon was made of cheese," he replies. Logical, really.

l Lunar Embassy: