Startup Proposes to Land Payload of Scientific Gear on Lunar Surface Some Time Next Year
U.S. officials appear poised to make history by approving the first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit, according to people familiar with the details.
The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory hurdle 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 obstacles for 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 elaborateuntil “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” on its mission-approval request.
Based in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Moon Express, which has 40 employees, was co-founded by Naveen Jain, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Mr. Richards, along with another longtime space expert, Barney Pell, a former NASA scientist. Mr. Richards also is a founder of International Space University, a private institution that trains space scientists and which has a central campus in Strasbourg, France.
From the beginning, Moon Express’s goal was to conduct robotic missions able to carry scientific payloads and scale up to commercial operations.
The company is among those competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, which offers a first prize of $20 million for the first privately funded team that develops a spacecraft to land on the Moon, traverse its surface and transmit photos and videos.
Moon Express’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.
Though the plan has drawn little attention outside the commercial space industry, it is being closely monitored by aerospace companies and entrepreneurs mulling investments in the nascent commercial space industry.
Under decades-old treaties, the U.S. and other countries are responsible for “continuing supervision” of both government and commercial payloads. Such responsibilities are largely formalities when they focus on satellites headed for typical orbits around the Earth, or spacecraft controlled by the Pentagon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or other federal entities. So far, the government has sent probes to the Moon, Mars and other planets.
But the proposed Moon Express mission is more complex, raising new questions about international treaty obligations and protection of heavenly bodies.
The new procedure features a more detailed, governmentwide review of what such payloads include, and whether their contents or expected trajectories pose contamination or other threats prohibited by treaty provisions. According to the FAA, a company such as Moon Express “may voluntarily request an FAA review of its payload” to determine if it poses “any significant public safety, national security, or foreign policy concerns.”
“With the emergence of new private players, it’s important to show some regulatory predictability,” according to Scott Pace, a former senior NASA official who teaches at George Washington University.
Moon Express illustrates how dramatically costs to build and launch small spacecraft are falling. When the company was formed around the beginning of the decade, it projected a moon mission would cost roughly $50 million. Today, company officials project a price tag of around half that amount.
The government is expected to use the same process to vet private attempts to fly deeper into space, including billionaire Elon Musk’s plan to send an unmanned spacecraft to Mars in 2018. Officials of SpaceX, as Mr. Musk’s company is called, are engaged in similar governmentwide discussions in advance of seeking a launch license.
A SpaceX spokesman on Sunday said, “we take planetary protection very seriously,” adding the company is working with federal officials to ensure compliance with space treaty obligations.
Eventually, space scientists and aerospace-industry leaders expect congressional action will be required to spell out new review procedures reducing industry uncertainty.
But until that occurs, Moon Express is expected to set the standard for how the FAA, State Department and other federal agencies review private launches aiming to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull.
The FAA, meanwhile, may be in line to get more responsibility regarding satellite collision-avoidance and new procedures to avoid conflicts between space launches and airplanes.
The discussions come amid escalating global interest in deep-space ventures. Last last Friday, Luxembourg announced details of its plans to establish regulations, and invest some $230 million of taxpayer money, to promote commercial-space projects, such as asteroid mining.
Deputy Prime Minister Étienne Schneider said his country plans to coordinate with the U.S. and other governments, and is aware of its oversight obligations under space treaties. Projects under consideration by Luxembourg, however, most likely won’t require a launch license for several years.