It looks like going to the moon will no longer be a privilege reserved for the government, as Moon Express has become the first private company in the world to receive permission to travel beyond Earth's orbit — a development that came after months of negotiations with government officials.
Now, Moon Express, having formally received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will launch launch its MX-1 lunar lander beyond Earth's orbit and to the moon in 2017.
"Moon Express received the green light for pursuing its 2017 lunar mission following in-depth consultations with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies," the company said [pdf] on its website Wednesday.
Earning The Right For Out-Of-Orbit Flight
Moon Express was was born out of the Google Lunar XPrize, an international contest with $30 million up for grabs for a private company that can soft-land on the moon and travel across its surface.
One would assume that earning the right to go to the moon would have involved a long, regimented process. However, as past examples have shown, making history often requires using unconventional methods, and this instance was no different.
To start, Moon Express didn't begin by asking for approval, it began by purchasing a launch to the moon with Rocket Lab in October 2015. At that time, it didn't have permission from the government to go to the moon or the ability to retain ownership of any lunar resources they obtained if it could get there.
However, its situation changed somewhat in the following month, November 2015, when the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was passed, allowing private companies to have full ownership of resources they extract in space. The bill made it legal for Moon Express to mine the moon and keep what it extracted, but it still didn't have permission to travel to the moon in the first place.
From a regulatory standpoint, things were all set, but things were still murky from a security standpoint. Why? Because national assets like reconnaissance satellites that monitor specific areas of the Earth are located over 20,000 miles away in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). At the time, that was the farthest private companies could place anything past Earth, and going beyond that point would give a company full view of some of the most important space-based security satellites. As a result, it's in the government's best interest to know exactly what a company intends to do on a mission past GEO.
Of course, since this would be the first time a private company would fly past Earth's orbit, there was no set procedure in place in granting a company the right to do so. As such, representatives from multiple federal agencies, including the State Department and the NSA, came together and determined that the FAA, which is already responsible for granting launch licenses to rocket companies, would be the best point of contact.
Heeding their advice, Moon Express did just that and submitted an application for a 2017 commercial lunar mission to the FAA on April 8, 2016, which has now been approved.
"The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States," the FAA said in a statement Wednesday. "As long as none of the information provided to the FAA changes in a material manner and the FAA does not become aware of any issues the review did not consider that could affect the determination, the FAA considers this determination final."
What This Means
Indeed, this will mark the first time that a private company has conducted a lunar mission. If successful, it will become the fourth entity overall to soft-land on the moon. The first three to hold this distinction were all global superpowers: the U.S., the former USSR and China.
However, what this doesn't mean is that other private companies will automatically be granted access to the moon. Naveen Jain, co-founder of Moon Express, was quick to note that this permission was a onetime deal for the company. All future requests for lunar travel will be addressed on a case-by-case basis until laws governing this activity can be passed.
At the very least, however, all companies that might seek approval in the future will know which entity to contact for permission and what steps need to be taken while doing so.
"This simply shows that every company can achieve their moon-shot," said Jain.
Whereas other companies still need to submit their plans to the FAA before getting their hopes off the ground, Moon Express is free to move forward.
For starters, Moon Express hopes to win further XPrize awards by moving across the surface. Rather than simply roving, it will re-fire its rockets on the MX-1 lander and "hop" to different locations.
In the future, the company expects to boost revenue by harvesting resources on the moon, like water and Helium-3, creating a fuel depot on the surface and ultimately performing round-trip missions to ferry payloads back to the Earth. By the end of the year, Moon Express plans to double its employee base to over 50 people.
Moon Express will conduct its mission in the latter half of 2017 on a rocket provided by Rocket Lab. Jain stated the mission will be profitable due to private payloads and sponsorships. NASA is expected to participate as well by providing a paid scientific payload, though Moon Express' business plan is not dependent on it.