Moon Express seeking U.S. government permission to land on Moon
At the 44th Space Congress held in Cape Canaveral on May 25, Bob Richards, co-founder, President, and CEO of Moon Express, declared that “Government policy has become the highest risk to development” in space. As a contender in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, Richards would be in a good position to know: Moon Express has become the first private company to seek permission to send a spacecraft beyond Earth orbit to the surface of the Moon.
Started by X PRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis in 2007 and sponsored by Google, the competition’s $30 million prize purse will be awarded to teams that can land a privately funded rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video and images. Aside from the sheer technical effort, the Prize’s guidelines clearly state that teams are responsible for complying with all the relevant laws and regulations covering the activity.
Where this becomes complicated is that up to now, there haven’t been any laws regarding a private mission to the Moon. The U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has spent much of the 21st century developing rules governing commercial launch vehicles to suborbital or orbital space. Moon Express’ X PRIZE effort is raising the bar for what American companies might attempt in the future, making the interested parties—including FAA, NASA, the Department of Defense, and the State Department—understandably cautious.
As things stand right now, current international law—specifically, the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects—states that any spacecraft launched by citizens of a particular nation, and any damage they might cause due to an accident, are the responsibility of that nation. Furthermore, given that space activities are supposed to be performed “for the benefit of all countries”, private ventures in space have been perceived by some to violate international law.
In an effort to make U.S. law and the new realities of privately funded spaceflight comply with existing space treaties, Congressman Jim Bridenstein (R-OK) has proposed the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA). As envisioned by Bridenstein, the Act will, among other things, “Provide certainty to encourage commercial space innovation” by providing streamlined, simpler, timely regulatory oversight over commercial space activities.
This is not Congress’s first foray into expanding commercial space laws. In November 2015, Congress passed Public Law 114-90, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which, among other things, authorizes the President to “facilitate commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by United States citizens” as well as ensure that “[a] United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource”.
So the good news for companies like Moon Express, Planetary Resources, or Deep Space Industries, is that they will be allowed to use space resources once they get there. However, the processes and approvals for a commercial entity to actually get to an asteroid or other parts of the Solar System don’t exist yet.
Bob Richards sounded optimistic at the Space Congress, though he declined to comment for this article “until the verdict is in”. Moon Express, which obtained its launch contract with Rocket Lab USA in December 2015, submitted their application to the FAA to leave Earth orbit on April 8. Richards noted that at present “there’s no form to fill out” for that sort of clearance. As of June 10, he was still awaiting a response. If he gets the approval, the legal framework—at least under U.S. law—will be established for private companies to travel beyond Earth orbit, acquire space resources, and use them for commercial purposes.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.