May I Go to the Moon, Please?

A company called Moon Express is one step closer to sending a privately funded mission to the moon. Moon Express is one of 16 teams still participating in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, the goal of which is to send and land a rover on the moon’s surface. The rover then needs to travel at least 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the surface, and it also must send high-resolution images and video back to Earth. The first group to accomplish the goals will win a cool $20 million. (The second group to do so will snag $5 million.)

Moon Express’ recent progress didn’t come in the form of a huge leap in technology or a decrease in the cost of launching stuff into space (Did you read about space toast, by the way?). Instead, it jumped a legal hurdle and secured permission from the U.S. government.

This is no small task. Until recently, there was no need for the government to worry about such requests and, consequently, no framework in place to grant permission. But over the last few years we’ve seen the private space industry mature. The United States had to figure out what the proper protocol would be to grant permission to land a private spacecraft on the moon’s surface.

Complicating matters is the Outer Space Treaty. In the 1950s, tensions between the United States and the then-Soviet Union were high. The animosity fed into a blossoming space race between the two countries. By the 1960s, both nations (along with the rest of the world) felt the need to put a few restrictions in place to prevent outer space from becoming a new battleground for the Cold War, so in 1967, the United Nations ratified the Outer Space Treaty.

The treaty lays out several rules. For example, it states that no nation may place weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies. It also says outer space doesn’t belong to anyone, nor can any country lay claim to stuff like other planets or the moon. And there’s a passage that states any nongovernmental entity that wishes to conduct activities on celestial bodies must first secure the permission and supervision of the «appropriate State Party to the Treaty.» For Moon Express, a U.S. company, that means the United States.

So in order to pursue its goal of landing a mission on the moon, Moon Express had to ask permission from the U.S. first. But without any precedent, it wasn’t clear from whom the company should ask permission. The State Department? NASA? The IRS?

Moon Express followed the lead of another private company called Bigelow Aerospace and asked the Federal Aviation Administration. One of the FAA’s many responsibilities is overseeing all rocket launches in the United States. The agency accepted the responsibility and granted permission. And thus, precedent is set!

Now Moon Express and other similar missions now have a clear administrative pathway to pursuing a lunar mission. There are still many other challenges to overcome. But it may be that we’ll see a private mission lay claim to the Google Lunar X Prize in the not-too-distant future.


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