US Government Has Approved the First Private Moon Landing

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. NASA/AP

Space company Moon Express says it has received approval from the federal government for a 2017 mission to become the first private firm to land on the moon.

“Only three superpowers have ever landed on any planet—we will become the fourth superpower,” Moon Express co-founder and chairman, Naveen Jain, said in an interview.

The ruling, issued July 20, is a watershed in commercial space. Never before has any company sought or received approval to do business beyond earth orbit.

The company, based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, hopes to win the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, given to the first company to land a probe on the moon, travel 500 meters on its surface, and transmit HD video of its accomplishments back to Earth.

An Israeli company, SpaceIL, appears to be its closest competitor, with its own launch planned for 2017, as well. It’s not clear yet what legal solutions SpaceIL will need for its mission, but similar approval seem necessary.

SpaceX will need similar approval for its Mars mission, which could launch as soon as 2018.

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While the challenges of getting to the moon today pale in comparison to the Apollo program—Moon Express’s first mission will cost about $25 million versus the more than $100 billion spent the first time—many legal hurdles remain. Earth orbit and outer space are governed by U.N. treaties made when reaching the moon was a herculean national task, not a challenge for entrepreneurs with VC funding.

This has given space entrepreneurs reason to pause; the lack of certainty around who might own resources mined from asteroids led U.S. politicians to enact a new law granting them rights to whatever they could return to Earth. Even though the new U.S. law skirted around ownership of astronomical bodies, critics still fear any U.S. overreach in regulating space could lead to risky international competition over who runs the show outside the atmosphere.

Moon Express went to the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office for help in April 2016. The agency led an intragovernment process to figure out how to give “mission approval” without setting any kind of new precedent or moving too fast against international consensus.

FAA regularly licenses satellite and rocket operators that work in Earth orbit to prevent interference with others and enforce safety rules. Those same rules applied here, but Moon Express also gave regulators “a series of voluntary disclosures” to help the U.S. adhere to its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. Most important is that states must supervise space missions and avoid contaminating celestial bodies. They are also are liable for damage their citizens cause in space.

Indeed, the Lunar X-Prize had attracted some controversy when it was originally scheduled to land near where the original U.S. astronauts touched down, now considered a historic site, if one not fit for tourists.

“Obviously, they are worried that we don’t destroy heritage,” said Jain, the Moon Express chairman. “To me, the moon is really like international waters, but if you obtain resources, you do get to own the resources.”

And because of the government’s insistence this approval process be considered “interim” until new commercial space legislation is enacted, Jain joked that “we now have exclusivity to go the moon!”

The mission will fly into space onboard a rocket built by Rocket Labs, one of the new crop of companies focused on the market of small launches to space. Moon Express’s probe, weighing about 600 lbs at launch, will be carried to Earth orbit. From there, it will use its own engines to fly a lander roughly the size of a coffee table down to the surface of the moon.

For the company, this probe and potentially winning the X-Prize are only the beginning. Jain and his co-founders, Bob Richards and Barney Pell, see the technology they will demonstrate in 2017 as the basis for a logistics and transportation platform for people who want to do business on the moon, whether for tourism, resource extraction, or developing technology to live in space.

Looking at the boom in space commerce as akin to the boom in internet businesses, Jain sees his company as a “last-mile provider” for service to the moon, kind of like the Comcast or Verizon of space. Once they have the infrastructure in place for low-cost access, the business applications will follow.

“What if we just brought the moon rocks? Diamonds on Earth are not rare, simply brilliant marketing,” Jain says. “Moon rocks are beautiful, I gave my wife a piece of moon rock on my 25th wedding anniversary. ‘If you love her enough, give her the moon.'”