August 3, 2016
Moon Express has officially become the first private company in the world to receive permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. After months of conversations with government officials, the company received the green light from the FAA to venture to the moon in 2017.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity.” Bob Richards, Co-founder and CEO of Moon Express
The announcement marks an important milestone for private companies in the space industry because, so far, all commercial space activities have been limited to operations within Earth’s orbit.
Moon Express was born out of the Google Lunar X-PRIZE, an international contest with $30 million up for grabs for a private company who can soft-land on the Moon and travel across its surface.
If successful, Moon Express will become the fourth entity in history to soft-land on the Moon. The first three were all superpowers – United States, U.S.S.R. and China – while Moon Express is privately funded and comprised of 26 entrepreneurs and engineers.
It’s important to note that the permission given to Moon Express doesn’t necessarily set a precedent for other companies. Naveen Jain, co-founder of Moon Express, told TechCrunch that this permission is a one-time exception for their company. Jain stated the U.S. government plans to take future requests to travel beyond Earth’s orbit on a case by case basis until laws governing this activity can be passed.
Interestingly, the legalities surrounding a private mission to the Moon came about a bit backwards.
First, Moon Express purchased a launch to the Moon with Rocket Lab in October, 2015. At that time, they didn’t have permission from the government to go to the moon or the regulatory security that they could have ownership of lunar resources they obtained if they could get there.
Then, in November, 2015 the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was passed, which explicitly stated that private companies are allowed full ownership of resources they extract in space. The bill made it legal for Moon Express to mine the Moon and keep what they extracted, but they still didn’t have permission to travel to the Moon in the first place.
This was the last piece of the regulatory puzzle, but from a security point of view, giving this permission to anyone with the resources to go is a bit tricky.
For example, national assets like reconnaissance satellites that monitor specific areas of the Earth are located over 20,000 miles away in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). This is the farthest orbit that private companies have placed satellites in to date. Going beyond this orbit could potentially give a company full view of some of the most important space-based security satellites, making it important for the government to know exactly what a company intends to do on a mission past GEO.
Because no company had traveled beyond Earth’s orbit before, there wasn’t a plan in place for receiving permission to do so. Jain explained that representatives from multiple federal agencies including the State Department and the National Security Agency worked together to determine that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is already responsible for granting launch licenses to rocket companies, should be the official point of contact for this type of activity.