This is Why You Need Permission to Go to the Moon

If the recent FAA approval of Moon Express’ mission to the Moon made you do a double take, you’re not alone. So why do you have to get permission?

The short answer: The Outer Space Treaty.

In 1967 the U.S. signed the U.N. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (aka the Outer Space Treaty).

That means the U.S. government is responsible for all activities that originate from inside the United States. When an American entity launches something into space, the government is on the hook for damages and, as such, the government is supposed to provide “continuing supervision.” This is not just a theoretical idea – in the 1970s, when the U.S. Skylab station crashed into Australia, the Australian government fined the U.S. government for littering.

When SpaceX, ULA or another company decides to launch a spacecraft, they either get a launch license or a payload review in support of a launch. In reviewing the plan for a company like Moon Express, the government had to determine whether granting the license would risk violating the Outer Space Treaty.

Three’s a Crowd

When it comes to suborbital or orbital space, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC) & National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plays a regulatory role:

  • FAA: Regulates the launch and re-entry of spacecraft.
  • FCC: Regulates communication satellites.
  • NOAA: Regulates remote sensing satellites.

None of these agencies officially regulates things like commercial companies that want to land on the Moon or go into deep space. Ideally there would be an in-space or on-orbit authority whose mandate covered all of space including surface activities on planets, active interactions of docking spacecraft and so on. Proposals for this authority do exist, but for now, there’s a void. Can you start to see the feat that Moon Express has achieved?

Mission Approval

In order to get the license, Moon Express came up with a process known as ‘mission approval.’  The company, working with every government agency involved in regulating or operating in space (NASA, NOAA, Department of State, Dept. of Defense, etc.), mapped out a series of actions it would take that would ensure the U.S. stays compliant with its international obligations.

Long term, this is not an ideal solution, and Congress will need to develop law that codifies a process that is simpler than what Moon Express had to use. But Moon Express couldn’t wait for that, found a way to work within the current regulatory system… and are now going to the Moon.

Congratulations Moon Express!

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