First ever commercial Moon landing approved by US government

Signal of change / First ever commercial Moon landing approved by US government

By Toby Strudwick / 23 Aug 2016

MoonExpress is a California-based privately financed commercial space company. Its mission is to “open up the Moon’s vast resources for humanity, and establish new avenues for commercial space activities beyond Earth’s orbit”.

On 3 August the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had approved Moon Express’ application to land its MX-1E spacecraft on the lunar surface. This is the first time that a non-governmental organisation has ever been granted permission to land a spacecraft on the Moon.

Gaining FAA authorisation is a significant milestone for Moon Express. They are hoping to win Google’s Lunar X-Prize ‘grand prize’ of $20 million, for being the first team out of the 16 competitors to land a spacecraft on the Moon, have it travel 500 metres and stream video footage back to earth. They have already secured a contract with Rocket Lab USA to take their lander to the Moon. Now that they also have government authorisation, it looks as if they are in with a great chance of winning the prize money.

So what?

At the peak of the Cold War ‘Space Race’ NASA enjoyed 4% of the Federal budget; now it receives barely 0.6%. Parallel to these shifting national priorities, there has been a rapid growth in the number and the size of commercial space companies.

Moon Express is one of these new, multi-billion dollar start-ups competing in what we might dub the ‘Second Space Race’. However, something other than national prestige and competitiveness is at stake: Moon resources. It is estimated that the Moon houses an abundance of rare metals and minerals, as well as vast quantities of water. Moon Express' founder Naveen Jain also hopes that Helium-3 found on the moon could be used to power fusion reactors at some point in the future.

In response to these trends, the US passed the 2015 SPACE Act. The Act allows for the "commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by United States citizens" (Chapter 513). However, several experts in space law argue that the Act is in contravention of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. They suggest that the US government is giving something away over which they have no claims of sovereignty: a necessary precondition for giving away rights.

Legal issues aside, the commercial exploitation of space raises ethical questions. Is this something that we should do? The 1967 Treaty enshrined a belief that all humankind should be able to share in and enjoy space. By allowing un-elected, and exceptionally wealthy individuals to profit from something that is a ‘commons’, are we perhaps denying the right of future generations to enjoy the Moon as we once did? What if we harvest the resources to such an extent that it is no longer recognisable?

Moreover, might companies such as Moon Express be the incumbent corporations of the next generation, such as BP and Enron today? The explicit goal of companies such as Moon Express is to share the resources, but no one is naïve enough to believe that these entities will wilfully give up their profits without a fight. By exploiting the Moon's resources as we have exploited Earth's, are we perhaps simply staving off the inevitable switch to a less wasteful economic model?

Of course, space exploration will continue to be heavily regulated: the FAA has to supervise Moon Express’ mission, and even share the liability should anything go wrong. Moreover, we should be excited by the possibility of affordable, reliable space travel and it is right that Moon Express should seek a reward for their investment and the technological developments that will come as a result. But that doesn’t mean we cannot think critically about whether the commercialisation of space is appropriate.

Image Credit: Flickr / Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Center


What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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