Moon Express is the first private organization to ever get approval from the US government to land a spacecraft on the moon. The space company says this could happen as early as next year.

Image credits Kevin Gill / Flickr.

“With this landmark ruling, Moon Express has become the first private company approved to literally go out of this world as a pioneer of commercial space missions beyond Earth orbit,” Moon Express said in a press statement.

Founded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, computer scientist Barney Pell, and space futurist Bob Richards, the company will be the fourth organization in history to soft-land on the Moon after the US, Chinese and USSR federal space agencies. And should they be successful, Moon Express will become the first privately funded group to land on the Moon — something they intend to capitalize on fully.

But being the first isn’t ever as straightforward as it sounds, and because Moon Express is the first company that has been granted permission to leave Earth’s orbit on a commercial venture, they’re in a bit of a legislative pickle — nobody actually knows exactly which permits they need, because there’s no precedent to this situation. There isn’t any type of regulatory framework set in place by which the US government can green-light similar companies in the future.

[ALSO SEE] How should space mining be regulated?

So Moon Express has been granted a one-time exception to launch a commercial mission beyond Earth. This will give regulatory bodies the time and experience they need to handle a similar request in the future.

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“There are no new laws, no new regulations,” Bob Richards from Moon Express told The Verge.

“We proposed a scenario where we would build on the existing payload review process.”

Funnily enough, Moon Express received the legal approval to mine and profit off Moon minerals before it even had permission to go there, explains Emily Calandrelli for Tech Crunch:

“In November 2015, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was passed, which explicitly stated that private companies are allowed full ownership of resources they extract in space. The bill made it legal for Moon Express to mine the Moon and keep what they extracted, but they still didn’t have permission to travel to the Moon in the first place.”

“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,” Richards added.

Original image via Photoshop Alexandru Micu / ZMEScience.

We require more minerals.
Original image via; Photoshop Alexandru Micu / ZMEScience.

It wasn’t until April this year that the US State Department, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), among other bodies, were actually ready to receive Moon Express’s application to explore beyond Earth’s orbit, and approval has now been granted. Approval hinges on the US guaranteeing future missions won’t violate the Outer Space Treaty — the basic framework of international space law.

Basically this means that Moon Express had to show that it will be fully transparent with its goings to and from the Moon, that it would not interfere with other space missions, ships or existing artifacts — “Don’t do wheelies over Neil’s footprint,” as Richards jokingly put it — and most importantly, that it won’t contaminate another world. The last point isn’t too serious a concern as the Moon is as barren a hunk of space rocks as they come, but it’s a key point to make for future missions that might operate on planets with the potential to host life, such as Mars.

So now, we just have to sit back and wait to see if Moon Express can reach the Moon by its intended date. And hopefully, when companies like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace come with their own applications to launch a Mars mission, the US government will be ready with the paperwork. Because when people with a ton of money want to invest in getting us off this little planet into the vastness of space, our governments should be ready to give them the get-go.

In triple exemplary, signed in the lower right corner.