U.S. Likely to Approve First Private Mission to the Moon

Reports that Ralph Kramden would be sending his wife were greatly exaggerated.

Private Moon Mission
NASA/Liaison

U.S. government officials are on the verge of approving the first private space mission to the moon, according to a new report fromThe Wall Street Journal. But if you're about to cash out your 401(k) so you can buy a seat on a moon-bound rocket, put the phone down. Moon Express, as the lunar-minded space startup calls itself, is only looking to land an unmanned 20-pound probe on the surface of Earth's No. 1 satellite.

Citing anonymous sources with knowledge of the project, WSJ claims the government's stamp of approval should set a precedent that will make it far easier for other private U.S.-based space companies to blast beyond Earth orbit in the future. (Somewhere, Elon Musk has taken a break from designing his Martian mausoleum to dance a jig.)

As it turns out, building a rocket capable of hurling a probe to Earth's moon might be easier than receiving clearance from Washington to do so. Thanks to a tangled mess of relevant regulations and agencies, Moon Express's plans for a lunar mission have been kicked around Washington more than a GWU sophomore's soccer ball, according to WSJ.

Until this point, only governments have attempted to launch space craft beyond Earth orbit, according to Moon Express CEO Bob Richards. Those governments have been bound by international treaty to respect certain rules when it comes to the moon and other celestial bodies, but sorting out how to make sure private companies abide by those agreements—and who in the massive federal bureaucracy has the power to green-light the permits—has proven a bit of a headache.

As a result, Richards told WSJ, "we’ve become a regulatory pathfinder out of necessity."

But after months of White House-led back-and-forth between the relevant governmental bodies, it seems the Federal Aviation Agency—which ultimately approves or rejects requests by U.S. companies to launch rockets, and inspects the relevant payloads—is about to sign off on the plan. An FAA spokesperson toldWSJ the agency "is currently working through the interagency process to ensure a mechanism is in place that permits emerging commercial space operations," but declined to discuss the matter any further.

Assuming the approval comes through as is expected, Moon Express still has plenty of challenges ahead. Final approval of the launch license is still months off, and the rocket the company wants to use hasn't yet left the ground. But if the company can pull this mission off, it stands a good chance of winning Google's Lunar X Prize, which offers $20 million to the first privately-funded group to land a spacecraft on the Moon, drive around on the lunar surface, and beam pictures from the satellite back to Earth. Considering Moon Express's MX-1 lander mission is expected to only cost around $25 million, those Google bucks would sure go a long way towards developing an MX-2.