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Who owns the sky?


If you own land in the United States, do you also own the airspace above it? In other words, who owns the sky?

The answer begins with a medieval Roman principle of property rights, which made it all the way to American courts: “Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell."

We asked our friends Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, cohosts of Civics 101, to join us to explore the uniquely American philosophy of property, to the moon and back.

Featuring Colin Jerolmack, Michael Heller, George Anthony Long, and Deondre Smiles, with special guests Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy.


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This article by Laura Donohue poses the same question we ask – “who owns the skies?” – in the context of property rights, state rights, and drones.

Deondre Smiles’ essay on how manifest destiny is showing up as we explore beyond this planet, “The Settler Logics of (Outer) Space”

The Civics 101 episodes mentioned were “Is Santa a Criminal?” and “What’s Up With the US Space Force?” Also relevant: their two-part series on “The Government and Housing.

A great podcast episode on diamonds and De Beers via Articles of Interest + 99% Invisible

More on United States v. Causby (1946)

By the way, the 2015 U.S. law about commercialization of space only refers to abiotic resources like minerals. If someone discovers alien life (even microbial), this law doesn’t cover it. Japan, Luxembourg, and the UAE have passed similar laws.

To learn about the fascinating question of who owns the space beyond your airplane seat, check out Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives by Michael Heller and coauthor James Salzman

Read more about the uniquely American interpretation of “ad coelum” in the introduction to Colin Jerolmack’s book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town.


Host: Nate Hegyi

Reported, produced, and mixed by Justine Paradis

Edited by Taylor Quimby and Rebecca Lavoie with help from Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy

Executive producer: Rebecca Lavoie

Music by Lobo Loco, ProleteR, Triple Bacon, Larry Poppinz, Gabriel Lewis, Ben Elson, Bonkers Beat Club, bomull, Anthony Earls, David Szesztay, and Chris Zabriskie.

Outside/In and Civics 101 are productions of New Hampshire Public Radio.

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