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The Outer Space Country That the United Nations Ignored

With Celestia, all James T. Mangan wanted was to carve out a little corner of the Universe for you.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

via NASA / Goddard

Among other things, ownership and statehood both require that the right people take notice. If Iran doesn’t recognize the existence of your nation-state, oh well. If the United Nations acknowledges another nation-state is in the same physical space as yours—and deserves to be treated as such—you’ve got some problems. Likewise if you want to sell real estate on the Moon, all you really need is people to buy lunar lots from you, and you own the Moon as much as you need to.

But what if you claim outer space as your own and no one believes you? What if you founded a country that everyone else ignored? At least you’ve got a flag, I guess.

James Thomas Mangan was one part P.T. Barnum and one part Willy Loman. He was the author of 21 books, one of which was America’s most stolen book for a while, another of which is still in print and getting positive user reviews on Amazon. He wrote a song that Kate Smith performed and that Irving Berlin called the “worst song ever written”. And before the United States put its flag on the moon, before the UN banned “national appropriation” of outer space or celestial bodies, indeed before the Soviet Union put Sputnik in the night sky, Mangan declared outer space to be its own country, with himself as the nation’s “First Representative.”

Born in 1896, Mangan was a boastful, bizarre man, even by the standards of his hometown of Chicago. According to his own 1947 autobiography, Mangan was a world champion top spinner and one of America’s best grass cutters. But for money he was the advertising manager for coin-operated machines.

In 1948, apparently after a late-night session of shooting the shit—talking about ESP, according to Mangan’s grandson—Mangan’s business partner gestured out their office window in Chicago’s Board of Trade Building, and remarked that there was “plenty of stuff out there.” For whatever reason, this banal observation triggered it for Mangan, who grinned and replied, “I wonder who owns it?” On the twentieth anniversary of this moment, a properly embellished account of this moment was relayed to the Sky Room at Stump’s Pub Restaurant in Worth, Illinois, as follows:

On that memorable day of the universe, December 20, 1948, at the stroke of midnight, after indefatigable research, James Thomas Mangan, standing high atop of the City of Chicago, reached out and seized all space in the sky in all directions away from the Earth as the complete possession and domain of the new sovereign Nation of Celestial Space.

But a declaration is one thing; any old Jefferson can do that. The trick is getting the right people to notice that you are in charge of the nation of outer space.

Never one to miss a chance for self-promotion, Mangan made sure that he was followed by television crews and reporters from LIFE magazine when he went to present the “Charter of Celestia” to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. The Recorder, in true Cook County fashion, told Mangan that he couldn’t record this, and ruined Mangan’s big moment.

Undeterred by the first of what would be many setbacks, Mangan appealed to the state attorney general, who delivered a 2,000-word opinion two weeks later, in favor of Mangan. He had the recorder put the Charter of Celestia on record.

Although Mangan claimed he didn’t need the approval of Cook County, the Nation of Celestia was now on the books, at least for Illinois. Later that year, when an Australian fruit merchant claimed to have older claims to outer space than Mangan, Cook County’s record was Mangan’s trump card. “A thousand people may of thought about this,” he said, “but I’m the only man who’s ever made formal seizure.”

The next step? International recognition.

Mangan hoists the Celestia colors (via Science Illustrated)

He applied Celestia to the United Nations and wrote letters to 74 secretaries of state, inviting them to formally recognize the nation of outer space. He also offered to register himself with the United States, as an agent of a foreign power. Celestia’s reception was tepid, to be kind.

The district attorney’s office told Mangan that they’d contact him when registering as an agent of a foreign power became necessary. The UN told him that Celestia couldn’t meet the provisions of the UN charter, denying Celestia’s entry to the UN, and ignored Mangan’s follow-up appeals. By the time he was interviewed for Science Illustrated’s May 1949 issue, none of the secretaries of state had even acknowledged his letters.

For someone with such a high self-appraisal, it’s no surprise that this series of snubs was not taken lightly. He vowed, “before I die, I’ll get at least one nation to recognize me.”

Beyond the sort of vanity that one can read into his letters—or maybe as part of it—Mangan had certain principles that he wished to see recognized and enforced in outer space. Beyond his insistence that all space flight was unauthorized trespassing, Mangan wanted the nations of the world to vow not to send up warships or sully the vacuum with an atomic explosion.

His other ideals revolved around a nation free of both democracy and taxes, since Mangan hated voting and also taxes, which is all well and good because Celestia didn’t have citizens.

“This is a new, bold, immodest idea,” he told Science Illustrated.

Mangan also declared his intention to start selling “lots” of outer space, roughly the size of the Earth, for a dollar apiece, in hopes that everyone could become richer and more peaceful.

“If you owned something 8,000 miles in diameter and 25,000 miles in circumference, you might realize that war is something to be laughed at,” he told Science Illustrated. “My nation might even give people enough bigness of thinking, enough bigness of disdain to make them feel international squabbles are petty.”

While official recognition seemed to elude him, as Mangan’s story got out, people began requesting space lots and sending in dollars, which, to his credit, he sent back. The likeminded also got in touch to dispute his claim.

“I get a lot of mail from so-called individuals who think I am nutty,” he said. “Most of them own real estate and they themselves have made the nutty claim they own ‘all upward to the heavens’ above their lots,” which Mangan dismissed, citing the 1926 Air Commerce Act, and the 1946 Supreme Court case, which had effectively ended the common law principle of owning everything above your property.

After 10 years of statehood, and the UN not writing him back, Mangan sought a final answer, declaring: “If the UN charter is truthful and words mean anything, I don’t know how they can keep me out.” Whether the charter was false or whether words actually don’t mean anything is unclear, but somehow the UN managed to keep him out.

On June 6th, 1958, Celestia’s national flag was raised outside the UN, where it seemed Celestia was fated to remain. The flag was a field of blue, with a white circle in the center, with a “#” in the center: the ancient printer’s symbol for space.

Another decade passed without an answer, and in 1968 Mangan made a sad-sounding proclamation."I’m invoking the 20-year statute of limitations because everyone ignored me," Mangan said. "Since nobody has objected for 20 years to my Nation of Celestial Space it means all rules inaugurated by that nation hold unchallenged from now on.”

I guess that worked, because no one really challenged Celestia’s laws, so much as they just ignored them. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 in spite of the action being “trespassing” in the eyes of Celestia’s First Representative. The UN set up a “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” in 1959, without consulting the nation most affected, and began making international law for outer space, much to the ire of Mangan.

Doomed to being a marginalized player on the international stage (I’m sure Palestinian readers can really empathize with Mangan’s plight), Celestia still caught on with certain groups. In addition to people who felt that they actually owned space, and the people who were interested in doing so, Mangan made his nation big among the all-powerful stamp and coin collecting circles.

Inspired by Lichtenstein, “a small country in Europe that derives a large part of its national income from the sale of the incredible number of stamps it puts out,” Mangan issued outer space postage stamps that were “no good on Earth,” yet were still desirable among collectors.

via Wikimedia

Mangan also minted “Celestons,” which were gold coins featuring his daughter Ruth’s profile on them, as she was “the pleasantess person in the universe.” The Celestons became the official currency of space and caught on with collectors. Mangan issued several other coins, including the silver “joule,” which was tied to neither the gold nor silver standard, but rather, the energy standard. NASA’s James A. Hootman called the energy standard “interesting and appears logical.”

As the space race got up and running, Mangan pestered both Soviet and American governments, sometimes getting meetings and sometimes going all the way to Washington just to be shafted.

The astronauts, on the other hand, were often happy to hear from him. Jim McDivitt and Ed White thanked him for sending them Celestons. John Glenn thanked Mangan for the passport to the Moon, as did Gene Cerman, the last astronaut to walk on the moon.

Although Mangan willed the Nation of Celestia to his children and grandchildren (who had been given cool titles like “Duke of the Moon”), the glorious Nation of Celestial Space largely died with him in 1970.

After the UN declared that no nation could claim sovereignty over space in 1967, shysters tried to weasel their way through the loophole of private ownership, which the UN later banned in 1979. As it stands, the relevant UN treaty establishes outer space as “province of all mankind”.

For whatever it’s worth, James T. Mangan beat them all—especially the UN—even if only Cook County noticed. What is that worth?

“Claiming doesn’t mean owning: I can claim to be Angelina Jolie’s boyfriend. A claim is just that, nothing more,” space-law specialist Virgiliu Pop told Focus Magazine. Pop is also the author of Unreal Estate, which contains a chapter on Mangan to which this article owes an enormous debt. Pop dismisses the idea that Mangan’s registration grants him any further validity. “Registering the claim does nothing more than certify it being made.”

In 2013, the ocean’s garbage patches were recognized as a nation by UNESCO, and the Garbage Patch State’s flag was raised in Paris just last week. The artist who spearheaded the effort did so in hopes of bringing more awareness to the constant pollution pouring into the oceans.

Perhaps James T. Mangan is a little bit more self-gratifying, in the way that Chicago hustlers tend to be, but there’s still something sort of beautiful when he describes his vision of selling Earth-sized chunks of outer space so cheaply:

So that any man, woman, or child, however small or insignificant they be, may some day own more real estate than the very country he lives in, yea more than the countries of the world combined!

While Mangan never monetized space, he did manage to gain a legion of supporters. By 1968 there were almost 70,000 “Celestia Participants,” who had applied for passports or parcels of space, or had contributed to the Nation of Celestial Space in some way. They, and their boisterous First Representative on Earth, were the true believers in one nation, not under God, but right next to him.

@a_ben_richmond