Land rush on for Earthlings claiming piece of the moon


Jan 7, 2002
Land rush on for Earthlings claiming piece of the moon

By Deborah Hastings
The Associated Press

GARDNERVILLE, Nev. ? On U.S. Highway 395, which cuts straight through this little town, Dennis Hope sells undeveloped land for the bargain price of $19.99 an acre. There are spacious lots near grand locales: The Sea of Tranquility. The Sea of Serenity.

Not a neighbor in sight, all the way to the horizon.

Granted, there is no air or water. The daytime high: 225 degrees. The nighttime low: minus 245 degrees.

Behold the moon, Hope's real-estate boon. Millions have purchased prime parcels.

They have nicely framed certificates to prove it.

The moon seller is a former actor, ventriloquist, purveyor of mobile homes and one-time deli-counter worker. By his estimate, he sampled 96 occupations before opening his company, Lunar Embassy.

It is the biggest success of his many careers.

When he first started this 23 years ago, his tongue was firmly planted in his cheek. Now, he says, he truly believes Earthlings will soon colonize the moon.

The smart ones, he says, will arrive clutching deeds issued by his company.

"I believe with every particle of my being that I'm selling property that belongs to me," he says. "We believe what we're doing is real."

Lunar Embassy, licensed by the state of Nevada, boasts 2.5 million property owners in 80 countries. More than 1,300 corporations have purchased plots, including Safeway supermarkets in Great Britain, which resold 20,000 lots to grocery shoppers.

Lest the enterprise seem all harmless fun, consider the country of Romania, where the average monthly salary is $100. Some Romanians are willing to spend half that amount for the promise of living on the moon.

"I don't consider myself to be a scam artist," Hope says. "I don't consider myself to be anything other than a businessperson that has found an opportunity.

"I'm no different than any other business person in the world. The only difference is the product that I sell doesn't exist here."

That's a rather big difference.

"I don't see it as a huge difference," he says, his voice turning to iron. Therein lies his sales pitch.

Hope's transformation from cynic to convert might be the logical outcome of hours spent in the company of space junkies, Star Trek disciples and entrepreneurs determined to travel outer space in privately built vehicles.

"All you have to do is open your ears and listen and the possibilities are endless," he says. "We will be on the moon this year. It's all going to start happening."

In countries including Romania, Sweden, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Kazakhstan and Russia, Hope has sold "ambassadorships" to local business people for a one-time, minimum fee of $75,000.

Under contract to Lunar Embassy, the "ambassadors" are obligated to sell a specified number of properties per month.

In Romania, for example, Adi Dragan of Bucharest says he has sold about 200 plots in two years at the rate of $49 for 70 hectares (172.9 acres). Purchasers see it as insurance for the future, he says; a new father bought a plot in the hope that one day "my daughter will go to the moon."

Recently, Hope began selling pieces of Mars and a moon orbiting Jupiter. Coming soon: lots on Mercury.

He believes he has the right to sell celestial properties because of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

There is such a thing, as well as an entire division of the United Nations, based in Vienna, Austria, called the Office for Outer Space Affairs. It is home to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The treaty, drafted while the United States and the Soviet Union raced each other to the moon, decreed outer space the "province of all mankind." It is on Article II that Hope hangs his space helmet. Moons and planets, the paragraph says, are "not subject to national appropriation."

Meaning ? to Hope anyway ? that individual appropriation is fair game.

U.N. legal officers say Hope's claim is without merit.

But in Nevada, selling land you cannot walk, drive, fly or boat to is perfectly legal.

"Some people in Nevada might argue that our jurisdiction extends to the moon, but we don't really think that," said Tom Sargent, spokesman for the state attorney general. As long as the company pays its yearly $100 fee and no one complains, Lunar Embassy is licensed in good standing. So far, no complaints.

People in Sargent's office, and his own family, have bought parcels. Do they believe they've purchased a real acre?

"Well, my son certainly think he owns one," Sargent says. "He's 10. It's on his wall in his bedroom."

But some of Hope's overseas associates have landed in a heap of trouble on Earth. At least two have been jailed on fraud charges.

Lisa Fulkerson of Chatham, Ontario, faces trial there on fraud and theft charges for allegedly deceiving investors and conning a bank out of $600,000 while operating as Hope's ambassador.

In Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Rene Veenema also landed behind bars, accused of fraud and forgery for selling Lunar Embassy moon plots without a contract with Hope. For years, the Dutchman sold parcels for $1,600, claiming they were Lunar Embassy properties. But they weren't, says Hope, who reported Veenema to Dutch authorities.

"I conned them all," Veenema told a Dutch newspaper after his 2003 arrest. He has promised to repay his customers and to "learn to stop lying and cheating."

Hope is not the only man to lay claim to the moon.

In 1996, retiree Martin Juergens of Germany claimed his family owned the moon because in 1756, Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great presented it to his ancestor, Aul Juergens, as payment for services rendered.

In a rush to exploit the moon by exploration, other firms are competing to develop commercial space travel. One La Jolla, Calif.-based company plans to crash-land there within the coming months ? or perhaps years ? carrying a cargo of business cards, ashes, messages or anything else people pay to have shipped.

Hope himself hopes to be on a moon shuttle, albeit alive and in one piece, so that he can plant his company's flag on the surface and claim the moon in person.

"Some people think it's intriguing," Hope says. "Some people think it's interesting. Some people want to lock me up in a rubber room."

Ray Allsip, manager of Penguin Plumbing and Electric Supply in Gardnerville, has known Hope for years.

"It's far-fetched, I know," he says of his friend's business. "But look at the guy who invented the hula hoop. When people asked, 'What does it do?' all the guy could say is, 'Well ... it goes round and round.' "

Allsip bought a piece of celestial property back when Hope sold 1,400-acre parcels for about $15. The deed hangs on the wall of his home office.

"You get more than $15 worth of conversation just from that," he says.