A private company plans to land on the moon, but what will this precedent mean for space exploration?

Moon Express is the first private organization to ever get approval from the US government to land a spacecraft on the moon. The space company says this could happen as early as next year.

Image credits Kevin Gill / Flickr.

“With this landmark ruling, Moon Express has become the first private company approved to literally go out of this world as a pioneer of commercial space missions beyond Earth orbit,” Moon Express said in a press statement.

Founded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, computer scientist Barney Pell, and space futurist Bob Richards, the company will be the fourth organization in history to soft-land on the Moon after the US, Chinese and USSR federal space agencies. And should they be successful, Moon Express will become the first privately funded group to land on the Moon — something they intend to capitalize on fully.

But being the first isn’t ever as straightforward as it sounds, and because Moon Express is the first company that has been granted permission to leave Earth’s orbit on a commercial venture, they’re in a bit of a legislative pickle — nobody actually knows exactly which permits they need, because there’s no precedent to this situation. There isn’t any type of regulatory framework set in place by which the US government can green-light similar companies in the future.

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So Moon Express has been granted a one-time exception to launch a commercial mission beyond Earth. This will give regulatory bodies the time and experience they need to handle a similar request in the future.

“There are no new laws, no new regulations,” Bob Richards from Moon Express told The Verge.

“We proposed a scenario where we would build on the existing payload review process.”

Funnily enough, Moon Express received the legal approval to mine and profit off Moon minerals before it even had permission to go there, explains Emily Calandrelli for Tech Crunch:

“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.”

“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,” Richards added.

Original image via solarviews.com. Photoshop Alexandru Micu / ZMEScience.

We require more minerals.
Original image via solarviews.com; Photoshop Alexandru Micu / ZMEScience.

It wasn’t until April this year that the US State Department, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among other bodies, were actually ready to receive Moon Express’s application to explore beyond Earth’s orbit, and approval has now been granted. Approval hinges on the US guaranteeing future missions won’t violate the Outer Space Treaty — the basic framework of international space law.

Basically this means that Moon Express had to show that it will be fully transparent with its goings to and from the Moon, that it would not interfere with other space missions, ships or existing artifacts — “Don’t do wheelies over Neil’s footprint,” as Richards jokingly put it — and most importantly, that it won’t contaminate another world. The last point isn’t too serious a concern as the Moon is as barren a hunk of space rocks as they come, but it’s a key point to make for future missions that might operate on planets with the potential to host life, such as Mars.

So now, we just have to sit back and wait to see if Moon Express can reach the Moon by its intended date. And hopefully, when companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace come with their own applications to launch a Mars mission, the US government will be ready with the paperwork. Because when people with a ton of money want to invest in getting us off this little planet into the vastness of space, our governments should be ready to give them the get-go.

In triple exemplary, signed in the lower right corner.


6 thoughts on “A private company plans to land on the moon, but what will this precedent mean for space exploration?

  1. John Smith

    Capitalism has trashed planet Earth; I can't agree with Micu that people motivated by private greed or Jupiter-size egos should now be unleashed on the rest of our solar system. Space exploration should be conducted by publicly-accountable bodies. If some capitalists have billions of cash to spare, it should be confiscated and used to clear up the filth they've pumped into the air and dumped into the oceans.

  2. safetynet2razorwire

    If>then. That's the basis of conditional logic, of BASIC, and of speculation in general. Including speculative writing. As
    far back as that trinity of speculative greats – Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein – corporate activity beyond our gravity-well established itself as a given. How that involvement plays out by decades, centuries, even millenia has gifted us with a panoply of futureverses.

    The writing has long been on the wall – the original prognostications joined by generations of interpolations and extrapolations.

    By my mid-20s mid-way through the 1970s run-out of the space race – when bravado so rapidly replaced vision and action- I did an 'if>then' of my own. "What if I had ownership of the multitude of patents, the organisational infrastructure, and the wealth of one of those massive technological corporate giants?" The answer I arrived at was " I'd arrive at an arrangement with a nation on the equator (my first choice was Sao Tome & Principe) to establish a commercial venture incorporated in their land from where vehicles could be assembled, launched, and recovered. With control over access to vital (patented) components for the technologies upon which commercial (and military) competitiveness increasingly depend efforts to halt extraterrestrial exploration and colonisation would be extremely costly – or require massive aggression on the part of a superpower against a tiny peaceable nation improving its lot (something which a cooperative alliance with other struggling nations would make very costly as well). Such an enterprise would easily be fuelled by the movement of natural resources from the rich deposits of an equatorial Africa use to exploitative foreign powers partnering for profit – getting a reasonable share of the return from hydro electricity, fresh water and metal (today incl. those more precious than gold 'rare earths'). The long-term profits as well as prestige of being a leader in science, technology and exploration could shake and level a capitalist playing-field increasingly tilted in favour of a relative handful of us.

    That such an arrangement might be a base from which to 'build an elevator to the sky' as hypothesised by Arthur C. Clarke didn't even factor in. Ability to orbit a trio of geosynchronous satellites able to make information freely available to anyone who could buy, make and aim a receiver did. I had read 'I Remember Babylon'. All around the world minds eager for the opportunities offered by an infinitely expanding horizon of human potential thought similar thoughts and began to plan – even though we knew it was highly unlikely that more than token effort would be made reach further into the unknown.

    At the bottom line (which is where corporate decisions are arrived at) – there is immense growth and profit potential 'out there' – for those with the will to reach. And at the planetary social and ecological bottom lines too there is great benefit in truly 'escape the surly bonds of earth' as WWII fighter pilot J.G. Magee wrote in 'High Flight'.

    To not reach for the stars would be humanity's stillbirth.

  3. Ray Campbell

    You mean, the same way Earth exploration was conducted? Or, the way the railroads were built?
    Christ's bloody palm, your [love'n spice'n everything nice] is literally palpable.

  4. Alex Micu

    I'm excited about space exploration, and the fact that we may finally get to work on other planets — something I've only experienced in sci-fi and am looking forward to. The part about private or corporate greed, yea, I'm not to big on that either.

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