Moon Express has the ambitious goal of being the first private company to land on the moon, but governmental regulations put this plan in jeopardy forcing the company to get creative with the White House, State Department, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Moon Express
Image source: MoonExpress.com

Moon Express’ goals extend beyond Google Lunar X Prize

Moon Express has just been granted approval to be the first private company to land on the moon’s surface. Over the last few years, it’s been made abundantly clear that private space companies are here to stay and they have goals well beyond the simple launch of satellites into orbit. Space X has not only resupplied the International Space Station but returned rockets to earth for reuse. Elon Musk’s company plans to launch its first manned mission carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS next year and hopes to get to Mars by 2020.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins has also returned rockets to Earth and he and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic hope to be taking “tourists” into space within a few years. Bigelow Aerospace has designs on launching and having an operational space hotel in place by 2020. These are just a few of the companies that our interested in making money in space and we haven’t even gotten to the companies that wish to start mining asteroids for rare elements.

The problem which many of these companies face is that there really isn’t a regulatory framework in place to see them fulfill their goals. The FAA was (and is) still struggling with how to properly deal with the growth of the drone industry and now they are forced to deal with companies that wish to really push the envelope. I imagine that there is a picture of Amazon and Blue Origin founder, Jeff Bezos, on a dartboard in an FAA office somewhere as he wants to both deliver packages via drones AND take people into space.

Much to the relief of Moon Express, they have won approval to get to the moon’s surface and with that win Google’s Lunar X Prize. Prior to this approval this was in jeopardy as 2017 is the cut-off for potential contest winners.

Approval certainly doesn’t guarantee success. Not only does their lunar lander need to work but it needs to get there and for that they are relying on startup Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket for delivery.

“Even though we are a proud contender [in the X Prize competition], it’s neither a cornerstone of creating the business nor do we need to win it,” Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express, recently told The Verge. “But we want to win it.”

Moon Express’ business model has them bringing lunar material back to Earth within five years and that is another regulatory animal altogether which we’ll speak to in a bit.

Regulatory hoops to jump through and “selfishness”

The FAA does have the ability to regulate space launches but it has no way to regulate what private companies do once in space. Therefore, mining ambitions and projects would need to be regulated by the State Department which is charged with ensuring private companies’ compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States and 103 other nations have all signed.

This is what had Moon Express worried that its mission slated for next year would not receive approval. The State Department essentially told Moon Express that it would step in and tell the FAA not to approve the mission as State didn’t feel it could adequately control the mission once on the moon.

While the Outer Space Treaty has many provisions, there were three that were particular contentious to the State Department that Moon Express needed to address in order to get approval for its mission.

“The great news was there is a regulatory process in the works,” said Moon Express’ CEO. “The bad news is we had zero confidence that the regulatory framework would be ready in time for our mission in 2017. 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.”

But they received approval by promising the FAA that it would provide frequent updates to the agency even though once on the moon they were not subject to FAA oversight.

Additionally, they needed to assure State and the FAA that they wouldn’t interfere with other nations’ operations or spacecraft. This was relatively easy as that essentially meant not disturbing the Apollo sites and the moon is a pretty big place to play, explore and mine away from these sites. Planetary protection is an important part of the treaty and forbids the spread of bacteria or other contaminants. As the moon doesn’t support life this was a pretty easy sell but that’s not to say Moon Express was confident it would receive approval.

But the willingness of the company to provide all these updates and information about the mission won it the approval it was looking to receive.

“The meeting was a culmination of all the work we’ve been doing for the last several months on whether or not the State Department in particular would be comfortable with this approach,” said Richards. “Our proposal provided enough comfort.”

“If our pilot program turns out to be a template or model that becomes the permanent regulatory framework for everyone else, that’s a great footstep in history,” added Richards. “But that wasn’t the intention; it was very selfish and just about our little 2017 mission.”