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Moon Express selfie
An artist’s conception shows Moon Express’ MX-1 lander extending its robotic arm to take a “selfie” of the spacecraft on the lunar surface with Earth in the background. (Credit: Moon Express)

After months of discussion, federal agencies are closing in on a process to approve commercial missions to other celestial bodies – including the moon, Mars and asteroids.

The groundwork for the process was laid in April, when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told Congress that the Transportation Department was the most appropriate entity to approve new kinds of commercial space missions such as on-orbit satellite servicing and trips beyond Earth orbit.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies are “working through the interagency process to ensure a mechanism is in place that permits emerging commercial space operations,” FAA spokesman Hank Price said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

The issue was brought to a head when Moon Express, one of the companies chasing the Google Lunar X Prize, asked the FAA to review its plans to put a lander on the moon next year. The FAA is part of the Transportation Department. Its Office of Commercial Space Transportation is currently in charge of approving commercial space launches and re-entries, but not activities in orbit or in deep space.

Authorization and oversight of space missions, even commercial missions, are federal responsibilities under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. For example, the federal government is charged with ensuring that U.S. space missions won’t harm Earth or cause undue harm to other celestial bodies. That principle is known as planetary protection.

In the past, NASA has addressed those treaty obligations for government-funded missions to deep space – but until now, the government hasn’t had to address the questions raised by commercial missions beyond Earth orbit.

The current discussions involve the FAA as well as NASA, the State Department, the Defense Department and other relevant agencies. Sources say the general outlines for a mission approval process have been laid out, but details remain to be worked out. The sources spoke with GeekWire on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the process publicly.

The status of the discussions was described today in a report from The Wall Street Journal, which also relies on unnamed sources.

If the deliberations proceed as planned, the FAA could give Moon Express a preliminary verdict on its lunar payload within a month, sources say. But that’s not directly related to the process for approving deep-space activities. The FAA’s Price noted that his agency routinely conducts payload reviews as part of its existing licensing procedure “to ensure that launch or re-entry of the payload does not jeopardize public safety or property, or the national security and foreign policy interests of the U.S.”

“Also, a prospective payload operator, like Moon Express, may voluntarily request an FAA review of its payload that may be launched in the future to determine whether operation of the payload would present any significant public safety, national security, or foreign policy concerns,” Price said in the statement.

It will be months before the FAA has to issue formal approval for Moon Express’ mission. The designated launch provider, Rocket Lab, is still working on its two-stage Electron rocket and hasn’t yet begun flight tests. Rocket Lab is due to send up Moon Express’ MX-1 lander in 2017 from New Zealand or the United States. Even though the launch may occur outside the United States, an FAA license would still be required because U.S. commercial entities are involved.

Any procedure for authorizing commercial missions to deep space would apply to Moon Express and other teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, as well as SpaceX’s plans to send robotic Dragon capsules to Mars starting as early as 2018 and Planetary Resources’ plans to mine near-Earth asteroids.

Planetary Resources – which is based in Redmond, Wash. – said it was keeping track of the interagency discussions.

“The process for reviewing and approving on-orbit missions is being developed in the executive branch to fulfill their legal requirement stated in Commercial Space Launch and Competitiveness Act – passed last year,” Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, told GeekWire in an emailed statement. “Planetary Resources continues to engage with Congress and the executive branch to develop a regulatory framework that is transparent and responsive so we can conduct our missions; and the U.S. government and Planetary Resources can meet their Outer Space Treaty obligations.”

Moon Express’ chairman and co-founder, Seattle entrepreneur Naveen Jain, said the discussions demonstrate that the federal government is embracing the role that commercial ventures can play in exploring space.

Someday, missions that once were done by NASA at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars could conceivably be done by private companies for less than $10 million, he said. Establishing the right regulatory framework is a key requirement for opening those new commercial routes to the final frontier.

“The U.S. government is making it easier for entrepreneurs to do what we do best,” Jain told GeekWire.

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