U.S. Set to Approve Moon Mission by Commercial Space VenturePosted: June 5, 2016
Startup Proposes to Land Payload of Scientific Gear on Lunar Surface Some Time Next Year.
The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory obstacle to plans by Moon Express, a relatively obscure space startup, to land a roughly 20-pound package of scientific hardware on the Moon sometime next year. It also would provide the biggest federal boost yet for unmanned commercial space exploration and, potentially, the first in an array of for-profit ventures throughout the solar system.
The expected decision, said the people familiar with the details, is expected to set important legal and diplomatic precedents for how Washington will ensure such nongovernmental projects comply with longstanding international space treaties. The principles are likely to apply to future spacecraft whose potential purposes range from mining asteroids to tracking space debris.
Approval of a formal launch license for the second half of 2017 is still months away, and the proposed mission poses huge technical hurdles for California-based Moon Express, including the fact that the rocket it wants to use hasn’t yet flown.
But the project’s proponents have considered federal clearance of the suitcase-size MX-1 lander and its payload as well as approval of a planned two-week operation on the Moon itself to pose the most significant legal challenges to the mission.
After months of lobbying by Moon Express officials and high-level deliberations among various federal agencies led by the White House science office, the people familiar with the matter said, the company appears close to obtaining what it has called “mission approval.” Until recently, Moon Express faced a regulatory Catch-22 because there was no template for getting Washington’s blessing for what it proposed.
Official action coordinated through the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates U.S. rocket launches and is responsible for traditional payload reviews, could come as soon as the next few weeks, these people said.
An FAA spokesman said the agency “is currently working through the interagency process to ensure a mechanism is in place that permits emerging commercial space operations” such as Moon Express. But the agency declined to elaborate until “this process has concluded.”
Bob Richards, chief executive and a founder of Moon Express, said over the weekend that “we’ve become a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity,” because in the past “only governments have undertaken space missions beyond Earth orbit.” He added that the company “is eagerly awaiting a determination” of its mission-approval request.
The company’s lander is slated to be blasted into orbit from a remote New Zealand site by a 52-foot Electron rocket manufactured by Rocket Lab Ltd. Onboard thrusters are supposed to propel the spacecraft, carrying a space telescope and equipment for other experiments, further from the Earth and down to the Moon’s surface in a matter of days or weeks.
Although the plan has attracted little attention outside the space industry, it is being closely monitored by aerospace companies and entrepreneurs mulling investments in the nascent commercial space industry…(read more)