Moon Express Receives USG Approval for Lunar Lander

Moon Express Receives USG Approval for Lunar Lander

Moon Express announced today that it has received approval from the U.S. Government (USG) to land its small spacecraft on the Moon, the first time the government has authorized a private sector company to conduct operations on another celestial body.  Moon Express plans to launch its MX-1 lander by the end of 2017.

In an interview yesterday, Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards praised the willingness of the several government agencies involved to find a path to approving his company’s application.   Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies.    The Department of Transportation regulates launch and reentry through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),  the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates the use of radio frequencies for satellites, and the Department of Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites through NOAA, but no agency has yet been appointed to oversee other private sector activities in space.

The issue was addressed in last year’s Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness  Act by requiring the White House to propose a solution.  The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy submitted its recommendation in April that the Department of Transportation be designated as the agency to grant “mission authorizations” to companies that want to send spacecraft to other places in the solar system, but no further action has been taken to date.

Moon Express wants to launch its spacecraft by December 2017, however, and could not wait for the matter to be resolved through the Washington political process.   It has raised $30 million of the $55 million it requires, Richards said, but needed certainty that the spacecraft would be allowed to be launched in order to raise the remaining $25 million.  It therefore decided to use the FAA’s existing authority to conduct payload reviews as part of its launch licensing process and make voluntary disclosures to other government agencies, such as the State Department, in order to obtain the necessary approval.

Richards said the FAA approved the spacecraft for launch in a July 20, 2016 letter following consultations with other government agencies.

He added that the favorable payload determination is only for this launch and does not set a precedent for other launches either by Moon Express or other companies.   MX-1 is a lander and will not be involved in extracting or utilizing lunar resources, although the company has long term plans for such activities.

Moon Express plans to launch the spacecraft on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, which is still in development and has not yet conducted any test flights.  Richards said the spacecraft’s payload review is separate from the launch license review Rocket Lab will go through and remains valid even if plans change and Moon Express decides to use a different rocket.

Rocket Lab plans to launch Electron from a launch site in New Zealand, but has agreed to obtain launch licenses through the U.S. regulatory system, Richards said.

Moon Express is one of the competitors in the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, whose rules currently require that contestants launch their spacecraft by the end of 2017.  Richards said that the Google Lunar X-Prize is not the only reason the company wants to send spacecraft to the Moon.  The company has a long term plan to utilize lunar resources.  Its website calls the Moon “the eighth continent” and co-founder and Chairman Naveen Jain said in a press release that “in 15 years the Moon will be an important part of the Earth’s economy and potentially second home.  Imagine that.”

Moon Express submitted its application to the FAA on April 8, 2016, although it had engaged in discussions with various government agencies for several months prior to “socialize” the idea of using the FAA’s payload review process, augmented by voluntary disclosures to other agencies, as the regulatory mechanism for obtaining approval.  Richards estimated it took a total of about 7 months.

Advocates of designating a single agency like DOT to be responsible for mission authorizations argue that it will be easier for companies to obtain such approvals by having a single point of entry into the government system — “one stop shopping.”   DOT presumably would delegate the responsibility to the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which would then interface with the rest of the government on the company’s behalf.  AST has the dual roles of both regulating and facilitating  commercial space launch and reentry services.  This would expand that responsibility to commercial in-space activities, not just getting to and from space.

The Moon Express press release says this is the first time a commercial company has been authorized to operate beyond Earth’s orbit.  While that may be a useful colloquial description to distinguish between traditional operations in the low Earth orbit – geostationary orbit envelope, the Moon is itself, of course, in Earth orbit.  So this is still an earth orbital activity, just at a much greater distance and involves landing on the Moon, a new realm for the private sector.

Moon Express is one of three companies selected by NASA for its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) program that involves no-exchange-of-funds agreements that allow companies to have access to NASA technical expertise and facilities.  The other two are Astrobotic and Masten Space Systems.

Of the 29 teams that originally entered the Google Lunar X-Prize competition, 16 remain, but three are top contenders for potentially winning the $30 million prize, two American (Moon Express and Astrobotic) and one Israeli (SpaceIL).

They are not the only private sector companies interested in activities on the Moon or elsewhere in the solar system.  For example, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries want to mine asteroids and SpaceX plans to send a robotic spacecraft, Red Dragon, to Mars in 2018 as a first step in expansive plans to send humans there.

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