Moon Express just got the greenlight to go where no private company has ever gone before. In a first, the Florida-based firm received permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. And they plan to use it to get a spacecraft all the way to the moon by 2017.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” said Bob Richards, co-founder and CEO of Moon Express, in a statement.
The company ultimately hopes to set up shop on our lunar neighbor mining for rare earth elements like platinum and helium and potentially even water. But their very first mission will be a one-way trip taking payloads to the moon using a washing machine-sized rocket provided by Rocket Lab.
The approval also makes Moon Express the frontrunner in the race to win Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition. The competition offers $20 million to the first company to send a rover to the moon, travel at least 500 metres and transmit back high definition video. Though to be clear, Moon Express plans to “rove” the surface of the moon by re-firing their rockets and hopping to various destination points. Moon Express is one of 16 different companies competing in the race.
And since no other company has secured this approval before, it’s no surprise the US government scrambled just to put together the processes to handle the request. Naveen Jain, co-founder of Moon Express, said the company partnered with multiple government agencies before they finally named the FAA responsible for approvals. It made sense as the FAA already grants launch licenses to rocket companies.
In case you’re wondering why the government would need to approve a private space mission in the first place, you can point to a 1967 international treaty called the Outer Space Treaty. It’s an agreement between the US and a band of other countries that says each country had better approve and oversee all space-related activity conducted by their companies. In effect, if Moon Express does anything wrong, the US government would be liable.
Still the approval was an ad-hoc one and any other companies seeking the same permissions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Ideally in the future, Congress will create law to codify the process for gaining permission. It’s just that Moon Express couldn’t wait that long to get theirs. They just can’t wait to start building out the future of Earth’s commerce on the moon.
“In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth’s economy, and potentially our second home. Imagine that,” said Jain.