Yesterday, Google Lunar X Prize competitor Moon Express announced that it has received approval for what will be the first purely commercial mission to go beyond Earth’s immediate orbit.
If all goes according to plan, and that is a pretty big if considering the variables involved, ME’s MX-1 lander will launch out of New Zealand aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle sometime in late 2017. With the schedule determined by the current X Prize expiration date of December 31st of next year, and the Electron having yet to make its maiden flight, it is a window which will narrow quickly.
Nevertheless, as frustrating as it may be for those who view the endless depths of space as an opportunity to escape from, or at least re-think the assumptions of an increasingly regulated society, winning approval may have meant overcoming a bigger barrier than Earth’s gravity well.
Moon Express took to an innovative approach to reach the current threshold, electing to submit additional information to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation as part of the payload review of its launch license. The extra information was then made available to other governmental agencies, including the Department of State, in order to smooth the way for a process which has yet to be established, but still must take place under Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. That article, written at a time when today’s NewSpace revolution was still far in the future, states in part:
“States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.”
While Moon Express now has the needed regulatory approval to proceed with its initial mission, and quite possibly take home the Google’s $20 million Grand Prize in the process, there are still more obstacles to be overcome if the company, as well as others, are to make good on long held dreams of exploiting the vast resources of the solar system.
The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which became law last year, addresses many of the issues encompassed, but little substantial progress has been made on formalizing the process for authorizing future activities.