Private Company Requests for U.S. Clearance to Fly to Moon

U.S. officials appear poised to make history by approving the first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit

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The Moon as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia commons
  • U.S. government agencies are working on temporary provisions to allow a private company to land a spacecraft on the moon next year
  • This request is a first of its kind, which is why USA does not have any established legal framework in these matters
  • Other countries are moving faster to establish rules for space launches in compliance with international treaties

U.S. government agencies are working on temporary provisions to allow a private company to land a spacecraft on the moon next year in 2017, while Congress weighs a more permanent legal framework to govern future commercial missions into Moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth’s orbit, officials said.

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The US Space Shuttle. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Plans by private companies to land spacecraft on the moon or launch them out of Earth’s orbit face legal obstacles because the United States has not put in place regulations to govern space activities, industry and government officials said.

“We do not have formal authority today to deal with what happens on orbit or on other planetary terrestrial bodies. That’s the issue we’re wrestling with,” said George Nield, head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“What is being looked at right now is a Band-Aid fix because the system is broken,” Nield said at an American Bar Association space law forum in Washington on Wednesday.

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A 1967 international treaty obliges the United States and other signatories to authorize and supervise extraterrestrial activities by its non-government entities. But no U.S. agency has authority to regulate commercial space activities outside of rocket launches, spacecraft re-entries into the atmosphere and operations of telecommunications and remote sensing satellites in Earth orbit.

The issue is coming to a head in part because of a request by Florida-based Moon Express for permission from the U.S. government to land a spacecraft on the moon in 2017. So far, only government agencies have flown satellites beyond Earth’s orbit.

“No commercial company has ever asked to go outside of Earth orbit and go elsewhere before. We’re a pathfinder out of necessity,” Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards said in an interview on Monday.

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Richards and Nield declined to comment on what specifically Moon Express is proposing.

Other countries are moving faster to establish rules for space launches in compliance with international treaties. Luxembourg last week announced it was partnering with two U.S. companies interested in mining asteroids and set aside 200 million euros to woo space firms to relocate. The United Arab Emirates also intends to serve as a commercial space haven.

“We don’t want to create an environment where there’s a competitive advantage for payloads to go overseas,” said space attorney Michael Gold, who chairs the FAA’s commercial space advisory panel.

-prepared by Saurabh Bodas (with inputs from Reuters), an intern at NewsGram. Twitter Handle: @saurabhbodas96

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