A private company called Moon Express, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Naveen Jain, space technology guru Dr. Barney Pell and space futurist Dr. Bob Richards, has received U.S. government approval to travel beyond Earth’s orbit and undertake a deep space mission. The goal: to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon’s surface by 2017 and analyze and explore its valuable resources that can be used on Earth. This is the first time a private enterprise has been given permission by any Terran government to do something like this.
“Getting this approval shows what a few entrepreneurs are capable of,” said Chairman Naveen Jain. “It’s a good first step for commercial space pioneers.”
In fact Mr. Jain said a great deal more in an interview with CNBC. He says that most of the things we fight over here on Earth — water, precious metals, rare gasses — are in great abundance in space. The first step will be an unmanned mission to the moon, which Jain estimates will cost only about $10 million with the new advances in private space travel technology. This will earn his company the coveted Lunar X-Prize, which awards $20 million to the first private company to send an unmanned mission to the moon, drive 500 meters on the surface, and return telemetry information. Jain plans to operate a tourist service taking (presumably very wealthy) travelers to and from the lunar surface.
Moon Express already has six payloads on its manifest for its first mission, planned for the second half of next year. According to Moon Express CEO Richards, customers include Google Lunar X Prize; the International Lunar Observatory; Celestis (a company that delivers funerary remains to space); and a partnership between the University of Maryland and the National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy.
The mission will be a baseline where a camera will be set up to take photos and video. According to Richards, the International Lunar Observatory plans to put a “mooncam” (a small astronomical observatory) accessible on the internet on the moon’s surface. Google plans to provide access to these images through YouTube — democratizing information about this important celestial body.
Moon Express also thinks NASA will want to send one or two payloads on the first Moon Express mission, Richards said. Dr. Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center who is involved in planning for future Mars missions, has expressed interest in sending an incubated mustard seed plant to the moon to see how plants can be gestated in lunar gravity and radiation.
As a result of the unique timing and nature of the Moon Express 2017 mission, it additionally serves as a pathfinder and a catalyst for U.S. regulatory processes authorizing private missions beyond Earth orbit. Moon Express has actively consulted with the White House, U.S. federal agencies, and Congressional oversight committees to fashion an interim ‘Mission Approval’ arrangement to license its 2017 lunar mission, by enhancing existing regulatory processes which assure that the mission will be consistent with U.S. law, policy, and international treaty obligations.
Already the politicians are lining up to regulate it, though. “Regulatory uncertainty could become the greatest risk for non-traditional space activities,” said Congressman Jim Bridenstine(R-Okla.). “The mission approval framework created by Moon Express is an elegant solution to increase regulatory certainty and comply with treaty obligations. I look forward to building off this proposal in the American Space Renaissance Act, comprehensive space legislation I will be introducing soon.”
The Mission Approval initiative of Moon Express is a natural progression under the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLA), signed into law by President Obama on November 25th, 2015, making the United States the first nation to explicitly recognize private sector space resource mining rights for abiotic water and minerals obtained from the Moon and other celestial bodies. Both the Obama administration and bipartisan majorities in Congress have supported an increasing role for the private sector in America’s national space endeavors, mandating NASA to utilize commercial partners wherever possible. In keeping with this mandate, NASA selected Moon Express under its Lunar CATALYST program in 2014 to develop new U.S. commercial lander technologies to help return the United States to the surface of the Moon.
The Moon Express application submitted to FAA AST for its 2017 private space mission to the Moon is an interim step toward a new space renaissance of public-private partnerships opening space for peaceful exploration and economic growth. Future legislation providing a clear path for authorization and supervision of new space activities will encourage continued investment in those activities by Moon Express and other companies and foster and promote a robust U.S. commercial space industry in and beyond Earth orbit.
Why do it? In part, to inspire the world, says Jain. “If we can do this, what, then, is impossible?”