Remember old cartoons and movies that featured an astronaut proudly planting a flag to claim a new planet for his native land? Have you ever dreamed of staking a claim on your very own asteroid for a family mining operation and homestead, gliding along under the Milky Way?

Reuters news agency announced this morning that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to extend its current licensing authority over commercial space launches in the United States to the licensing of companies for projects on the Moon. Bigelow Aerospace plans to spend billions of dollars to put inflatable space habitats on the Moon, and the FAA is saying the company can expect to have exclusive rights to the territory they choose and related areas.

Holy Swiss cheese! The FAA is offering them the Moon?

Well, technically the FAA is just saying that if they license Bigelow to plant its habitats, they won’t license anybody else to drop in and exploit the same patch of moonscape. They don’t really dare to say more than that because the FAA doesn’t have the authority to award property rights, mineral rights, or any other rights on the Moon or any other planet.

The old cigar-with-fins spaceship landing on the Moon and an astronaut jumping out to plant the Stars and Stripes became out-of-date in 1967 when the United Nations Outer Space Treaty went into effect (a couple of years before an astronaut actually did jump out of a spacecraft and plant the Stars and Stripes on the Moon. Hmmmm.) Anyway, the treaty says that nobody can claim ownership of anything in outer space because it’s for all humankind to share.

That’s an issue for companies like Bigelow that want to land on the moon, and it’s likely to become a more pressing issue as companies and organizations attempt to win the Google Lunar X-Prize of $20 million (plus subsidiary prizes), because any of them that do succeed in reaching the Moon will surely want to be able to make it worth their while afterward, too. There are also a number of companies proceeding with serious plans to mine asteroids.

So who should decide property and other rights in outer space? The United Nations or a special subsidiary of it? Some new international body (a United Federation of Planets anyone?)

I think the key question is whether we want to repeat what’s been done on Earth. Do we want the wealthiest nations to have their way on whatever territory they can reach because they have the means to get there? Do we want rich people to have the ability to buy up all the available land they can afford and then sell pieces of it to the rest of us for the highest price they can get? Do we want big corporations to have favoured status when it comes to exploiting mineral or other resources, leaving the “little guy” scrabbling for the dregs? That’s the way it is here and now, on Earth, and has been for a long time. Or do we want the exploration of space to be a break from the past—a chance to do things differently?

If so, the UN Outer Space Treaty isn’t going to be adequate for the challenges (legal and otherwise) of the coming century. It needs an upgrade, and we average folk need to make our desires known. Before big American companies get settled in on the Moon. By then it might be too late.