US issues first-ever private moon flight license

© NASA
Moon Express, a Florida-based company with headquarters in Cape Canaveral, has finally won US government clearance to send commercial and scientific missions to the moon. Elon Musk’s space company would need a similar license to fly missions to Mars.

So far there have been no private space missions beyond Earth’s orbit and only state agencies have performed outer space missions.

“It's been a very steep mountain,” Moon Express founder and CEO Bob Richards told Reuters in a telephone interview. “We had to lay the track at the same time that we wanted to do the mission.”

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The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is already responsible for issuing credentials for commercial rocket launches in the US, has been recognized as the authority overseeing private missions beyond Earth's orbit.

“We proposed a scenario that built on the existing FAA mission-approval framework,” Richards explained. State agencies including NASA, as well as Defense, Commerce and State departments, agreed no new law is necessary to allow private space exploration.

NASA is going to act as adviser to Moon Express, but would not regulate its activities on the moon's surface.

According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the US bears international responsibility for any space flights performed from its territory by national non-government entities.

The FAA created a precedent, granting Moon Express permission to deliver a small lander the size of a suitcase to the moon in 2017.

Moon Express’s mission will be a one-way trip performed within the framework of the Google Lunar X prize, which will award $20 million to the first company that can send a craft to land on the moon, travel across its surface and send photographs back to Earth.

While on the moon, the probe will not only take photos and film video to transmit to Earth. It will also carry commercial cargo to the lunar surface, including cremated remains for the first ever people to be buried on the moon.

The probe's mission on the moon's surface will last for about two weeks.

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The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which issued the permission for Moon Express, is likely to issue licenses for other private space ventures, possibly ranging from satellite repair and servicing space labs to asteroid mining.

In November 2015, the US Senate adopted House Resolution 2262, also known as the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, mentioning among other things that any US citizen “shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained.”

READ MORE: Rockhounds rejoice: Senate adopts bill allowing asteroid mining

The next businessman to address the FAA for an outer space mission license is likely to be Elon Musk and his Space Exploration Technologies (SET) company, which plans to launch a mission to Mars in 2018.