U.S. To Approve First Private-Sector Moon Mission

The U.S. government will soon grant a private-sector start-up permission to conduct their own moon mission. The announcement follows news that Congress wants NASA to concentrate on the moon again, diverting focus from their plans to land on an asteroid. In the end, people might just be tired of waiting so long for exciting space accomplishments.

The company is called Moon Express, and they’re pioneering history’s first nongovernmental mission past Earth’s orbit to drop a 20-pound payload, the company’s lander the MX-1 and scientific equipment. But first, they had to face a regulatory process that does not even really exist yet. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company is almost through the red tape and after months of lobbying and meetings, is expected to get “mission approval” soon.

NASA made up 4.5 percent of the federal budget back in 1966, now its about.5 percent. [Photo by NASA/Liaison] NASA made up 4.5 percent of the federal budget back in 1966, now its about.5 percent. [Photo by NASA/Liaison]The government still has to ensure that for-profit space travel follows international treaties, and their approval for Moon Express will likely set procedures for the start-ups that hope to follow in their lunar footprints.

Moon Express CEO and founder Bob Richards explained to the Journal that “we’ve been a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity,” because up to now “only governments have undertaken space missions beyond Earth orbit.”

The company’s immediate goal is to win Google’s Lunar X Prize, which will give $20 million to any group that can land a craft on the moon, drive around on its surface for 500 meters or more, and send pictures back to Earth. Moon Express’s long-term goals are likely to give the government even more of a headache.

Ultimately, they hope to mine the moon for rare-Earth materials according to the company’s website.

“We believe it’s critical for humanity to become a multi-world species and that our sister world, the Moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future.”

They explained that many of the elements that are rare on Earth are believed to come from space and scattered around the surface of the moon. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids any country from claiming the moon as their own territory, but it doesn’t mention private business mining operations.

Of course, Moon Express’s mission has many technical obstacles to get over, too. For one, the rocket they intend to use, a 52-foot Electron rocket manufactured by Rocket Lab Ltd, has never flown. The launch will take place in New Zealand, and their launch license will be for the later half of 2017.

Their mission is made possible partially by rapidly dropping costs for space travel. The flight would have cost $50 million when the company was founded about a decade ago; now it’s about half that much.

Still, Moon Express has competition nipping at their heels. SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, is also in the Google Lunar X Prize competition and has a launch verified for the later half of 2017. As previously reported by the Inquisitr, Lunar Mission One in the U.K. also has its eyes set on the moon and hopes to drill down into the celestial body and deposit some time capsules. They started a Kickstarter offering donors a chance to have their names on lunar surface.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to just go straight to Mars for an unmanned mission. They’re also seeking approval from government officials and say they take planetary protection very seriously. Then there’s the Mars One mission that intends to send astronauts on a one-way trip to the Red Planet sometime in the future.

The moon mission is exciting for some space enthusiasts, but the U.S. public sector is still having trouble setting grand ambitions like it did in the 1960s. Congress recently told the space agency to switch its focus back to the moon according to Arstechnica, throwing out their original direct-to-Mars plans in favor of setting up on the moon first.

[Photo by NASA/Liaison]