Spaceflight venture Moon Express wants to be the first private company ever to land on the Moon in 2017 — and now the company has been granted approval by the United States government to launch to the lunar surface. It's the first time the government has granted regulatory approval for a private mission beyond Earth orbit. And Moon Express came very close to being denied permission to go.
No regulatory framework currently exists for a commercial space missions to another world. Lawmakers are working on a permanent solution, but it likely won't be ready in time for Moon Express' 2017 mission. So the company came up with its own temporary framework — a regulatory patch — that the US government could use to oversee the company's mission. And after a meeting between the Federal Aviation Administration, the White House, and the State Department, Moon Express has been given the approval it needs to launch to the Moon.
It's the first time the government has granted regulatory approval for a private mission beyond Earth orbit
So far, commercial companies have mostly just launched satellites into space; all specialized private missions, like launching cargo to the space station, have been overseen by NASA. That means Moon Express could be the first private company to land on the Moon, as well as the company that travels the farthest away from our planet.
Moon Express' regulatory patch is only a temporary fix, though. Legislators are working on a long-term framework that will help the US government oversee private, deep-space missions. And it needs to happen soon, as space companies are getting more ambitious than ever. SpaceX announced its plans to send spacecraft to Mars in 2018, and Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch space hotels by 2020. Moon Express' lander is just the first of many deep-space private missions to come.
Moon Express needs to get to the Moon by 2017. That’s the deadline for the Google Lunar X Prize — an international competition to send the first privately funded vehicle to the Moon's surface. Moon Express joined the contest in 2012, and has since pushed ahead of the other 16 contenders. It is one of just two teams to have secured a launch contract. The company has purchased a ride for its lander on the Electron rocket, a vehicle currently being built by startup Rocket Lab.
The Electron rocket that the MX-1 lander will eventually fly on. (Rocket Lab)
Moon Express has goals beyond winning the X Prize competition: the company wants to mine the Moon for rare elements and metals. "Even though we are a proud contender [in the X Prize competition], it’s neither a cornerstone of creating the business nor do we need to win it," Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, told The Verge. "But we want to win it." If successful, the 2017 trip will prove that the company can get hardware to the lunar surface in one piece. Afterward, Moon Express will continue to mount more missions to the Moon, and by 2020, Richards hopes the company will be able to bring back lunar material.
The company wants to mine the Moon for rare elements and metals
For a while, though, it was unclear whether Moon Express would legally be able to keep any material it got from the Moon. US law didn’t guarantee the company rights to materials it retrieved from space. But in November, President Obama signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act — a bill that restricts the FAA from issuing standards for commercial spacecraft for the next seven years. The bill also guaranteed that private companies had the rights to any resources they collected in space. That means Moon Express and asteroid mining initiatives like Planetary Resources will be able to own any materials that they take from outer space bodies.
After the government said companies could essentially mine objects in space, the FAA realized it needed a way to oversee these private mining missions, as well as other ambitious space projects. Mainly, the US has to ensure these missions comply with the Outer Space Treaty — an international agreement between 104 countries that governs how nations conduct missions in space. "If the United States wants to be perceived as being compliant with the Outer Space Treaty, somebody has to authorize and oversee those operations," said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in a recent speech reported by Space News. The White House and lawmakers have since been working on a regulatory framework that would allow the US government to make sure non-traditional space missions adhere to the treaty. But that framework likely won't be ready for a few years.
The signing of the Outer Space Treaty. (UN)
"The great news was there is a regulatory process in the works," said Moon Express' Richards. "The bad news is we had zero confidence that the regulatory framework would be ready in time for our mission in 2017. Ironically you had a great 'space resources' act that says you can own what you get, but we’re in a situation where you can’t launch to go get it."
The problem for Moon Express revolved around getting approval for its payload. Whenever a private company wants to conduct a space mission, it must apply for a license to launch its spacecraft from the FAA. Part of that application process, called the payload review, involves telling the FAA what's going into space and where it's going. The FAA has no power over what companies do when they get to space; however, the FAA does consult with other agencies during the approval process. One of those agencies is the State Department, which made it clear to Moon Express that it would step in and ask the FAA to deny the request, Richards said. That’s because the department can’t reliably enforce the Outer Space Treaty when the Moon Express lander is on the lunar surface.
An artistic rendering of the MX-1 lander on the surface of the Moon. (Moon Express)
That gave Moon Express the idea to share more information than the federal government required. The company submitted a "souped-up" payload review, in which it voluntarily declared how the 2017 lunar mission would comply with the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty. "There are no new laws, no new regulations," said Richards. "We proposed a scenario where we would build on the existing payload review process."
Moon Express tried to address three critical provisions of the Outer Space Treaty. First, nations must continually supervise all of the space missions that happen within their borders. Moon Express told the FAA it would frequently update the agency with information on the 2017 trip, so that the government could oversee it. The second rule is not messing with other nations’ spacecraft or space operations. On the Moon, that mostly means respecting the Apollo sites, and Moon Express assured the government that it wouldn't disturb these areas. "Don't do wheelies over Neil’s footprint," joked Richards.
Moon Express tried to address three critical provisions of the Outer Space Treaty
Finally, Moon Express had to show the State Department it would abide by the Outer Space Treaty’s provision that is meant to prevent people from contaminating other worlds, called planetary protection. If companies like Moon Express want to land on a body in outer space, they have to be careful not to spread too many bacteria on the surface. Fortunately the Moon doesn't host life, so Moon Express doesn't have to worry too much about contamination. In its voluntary disclosures to the federal government, Moon Express gave the FAA all its data about how it would adhere to the rules of planetary protection.
After giving all of this information to the FAA, the State Department, and the White House, the various agencies met to decide whether these disclosure were good enough. And the decision went in Moon Express' favor. "The meeting was a culmination of all the work we’ve been doing for the last several months on whether or not the State Department in particular would be comfortable with this approach," said Richards. "Our proposal provided enough comfort."
A Future Framework
The solution that Moon Express proposed was really only meant to be a temporary fix for the company, but it's possible the company has inadvertently created ground rules for all future commercial missions beyond Earth orbit. Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has proposed a bill, called the Space Renaissance Act, which incorporates Moon Express' solution. Rather than have companies voluntarily disclose how they'll adhere to the Outer Space Treaty, however, Bridenstine's solution gives the FAA authority to issue guidelines for companies to follow. "My proposal updates the current payload review process to enhance it beyond the issuing of a yes or no," said Congressman Bridenstine. "Under this proposal, the FAA will be able to place conditions on payloads."
Future regulations will be important for companies like SpaceX
It'll be some time before Bridenstine's bill or any other framework solutions take effect, though. But these future regulations will be important for companies like SpaceX, which wants to send spacecraft to Mars by 2018. SpaceX will also need approval for those missions, and it's possible these new regulations will be in effect by then to help the government oversee what SpaceX plans to do. If not, the company will likely have to come up with its own temporary fix, just like Moon Express did.
For now, Moon Express isn't too concerned with how its temporary solution may affect policy; the company's just happy it has approval to go to the Moon. "If our pilot program turns out to be a template or model that becomes the permanent regulatory framework for everyone else, that’s a great footstep in history," said Richards. "But that wasn’t the intention; it was very selfish and just about our little 2017 mission."