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Moon Express MX-1 lander
An artist’s conception shows the Moon Express MX-1 lander in lunar orbit. (Credit: Moon Express)

BELLEVUE, Wash.Moon Express says it has received preliminary clearance for the robotic lander that it plans to send to the moon next year, after a voluntary payload review involving the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies.

The clearance doesn’t represent final regulatory approval for the mission, although some reports may be giving that impression. The FAA will still have to grant a launch license before Moon Express can blast off.

Naveen Jain
Naveen Jain

Nevertheless, Moon Express’ executives hailed the successful payload review as a significant step toward what could be the first commercial mission to another celestial body. Moon Express CEO Bob Richards called it a “landmark decision.”

“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” Richards said in a statement issued today.

Seattle-area tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, the company’s co-founder and chairman, was equally effusive.

“The sky is not the limit for Moon Express – it is the launch pad,” he said. “This breakthrough ruling is another giant leap for humanity. Space travel is our only path forward to ensure our survival and create a limitless future for our children.”

Jain said the effort also pays tribute to America’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“Landing on the moon, even getting permission to leave Earth orbit, just shows that a dedicated group of entrepreneurs can achieve anything that they can imagine,” he told GeekWire during an interview in his Bellevue office. “To me, this is a story about entrepreneurs taking a real moonshot. In this case it happens to be a literal moonshot – but really, it’s taking a symbolic moonshot, too.”

He said other entrepreneurs may be inspired to take different kinds of moonshots – for example, curing cancer or pioneering clean energy.

Jain’s moonshot began in 2010, when Moon Express was founded to go after a piece of the Google Lunar X Prize. That competition offers a $20 million grand prize to the first private-sector team that can land a probe on the moon, have it travel at least 500 meters, and send back high-definition video and images from the lunar surface.

To win the prize, the feat has to be accomplished by the end of 2017. Sixteen teams are in the race, but so far, only Moon Express and Israel’s SpaceIL have secured verified launch contracts.

Moon Express’ MX-1E micro-lander is set to be launched by Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from either New Zealand or the United States sometime next year. Rocket Lab says its New Zealand launch site is nearly ready to go, and it expects to conduct its first test launch by the end of this year.

Peter Beck and Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck aims to have the company’s Electron rocket blasting off from a New Zealand launch site by the end of the year. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The flight plan calls for the Electron rocket to send the MX-1E into a looping orbit that brings it to the moon over the course of several weeks.

Jain emphasized that winning the $20 million prize isn’t Moon Express’ only objective. He and other company executives see the mission as the opening gambit in what could be the development of FedEx-style transport services to the moon and back. The company already has raised more than $30 million from investors including Autodesk and the Founders Fund.

In order to keep moving ahead, Moon Express was looking for assurances that its first lunar mission wouldn’t get tangled up in red tape. It’s a complicated issue, because Congress has never defined the scope of regulations for commercial activities in deep space.

That’s why Moon Express asked the FAA and other agencies for the enhanced payload review in April. Such reviews are typically done to ensure that the payload complies with federal and international requirements, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

For months, Moon Express’ application was reviewed not only by the FAA, but also by NASA, the State Department and other relevant agencies. The company said it received formal approval from the FAA on July 20, the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The payload review gave Moon Express the assurances it was looking for, but that’s not the final word. Moon Express and Rocket Lab still have to complete the FAA’s license application process for next year’s launch – which means the moonshot is still a bit up in the air, so to speak.

“If a launch operator applies to the FAA for a license to launch a vehicle carrying the MX-1E payload, the favorable payload determination will be incorporated in our review of the license application,” the FAA said in a fact sheet about last month’s decision.

White House officials have said they’d like to see a more formal process for approving commercial missions beyond Earth orbit, but that’s up to Congress. The FAA said the type of review that Moon Express went through was a one-off, and would not set a precedent for other missions.

“Any future requests for a payload determination from Moon Express Inc. or another entity will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” the FAA said.

At least one future request is already looming: SpaceX has said it plans to launch a privately funded, robotic mission to Mars as soon as 2018.

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