Government approves first-ever private moon voyage

In what could be considered peak privatization, the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared a commercial firm to conduct a lunar landing.

Artist's Rendering of the Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander (Image: Moon Express)

An artist's rendering of the Moon Express MX-1 lunar lander. (Image: Moon Express)

Space exploration, once the most inherently governmental of functions, is increasingly a private-sector endeavor as well. And as early as 2017, that trend could reach the moon now that the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared a company to conduct a lunar-landing voyage.

Moon Express -- a privately financed Silicon Valley-based start-up founded in 2010 -- announced on its website Aug. 3 that it had secured federal approval for the flight.

The company plans for its MX-1 robotic lander to become the first commercial venture to extend beyond Earth’s orbit. A successful soft landing -- that is, one that does not result in vehicle damage -- would be America's first since NASA's Apollo program.

Additionally, if successful, the company would win the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million bounty for the first company to accomplish the feat, with additional prize money available for peripheral scientific achievements. The 16-team international competition and cash incentive expire at the end of 2017.

Moon Express views its first mission as a starting point. On its website, the company touts the potential for lunar resource mining. "The recent discovery of water on the moon is an economic game changer for humanity's future," said Bob Richards, the company’s co-founder and CEO. "Water is the oil of the solar system, and the moon has become a gas station in the sky."

Fellow Co-Founder and Chairman Naveen Jain added, "In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals and moon rocks back to Earth."

However, those ambitions for resource retrieval will not be fulfilled on this voyage and would require separate federal approval.

Future missions -- whether administered by Moon Express or another private venture -- would be subject to FAA evaluation on a case-by-case basis, according to an agency statement.

In its approval process, the FAA consulted with the State Department to ensure that the company's plans did not violate the Outer Space Treaty, a fundamental international framework drafting during the Cold War to ensure peaceful space endeavors.

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