Bigelow requested the FAA review after completing a report for NASA identifying an uncertain regulatory environment as a major obstacle to commercial lunar activities

WASHINGTON — A positive review by the Federal Aviation Administration of a proposed Bigelow Aerospace lunar habitat is seen as a first step towards supporting commercial activities on the moon, but contrary to some reports, that review does not represent a government endorsement of property rights claims there.

In a Dec. 22 letter to Bigelow Aerospace, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) said it had completed a payload review of a proposed lunar habitat requested by the company in late 2013. The office, working with several other government agencies, said it was willing to use its authority to ensure Bigelow could carry out its activities there without interference from other companies licensed by the FAA.

“AST was able to assure Bigelow Aerospace that it in fact would use its launch licensing authority, as best it can, to protect private sector assets on the Moon and to provide a safe environment for companies to conduct peaceful commercial activities without fear of harmful interference from other AST licensees,” Mike Gold, director of Washington operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, said in a Feb. 3 statement to SpaceNews.

Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow in 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow in 2013. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Although Bigelow has no immediate plans for a lunar base, the company requested the payload review — one part of the FAA’s overall launch licensing process — to identify any issues that could hinder private development of the moon. Bigelow decided to pursue the review after completing a report for NASA in 2013 that identified an uncertain regulatory environment as a major obstacle to commercial activities there.

“We think that, first of all, this is not an overnight process, and that is probably the main reason why we are starting on this,” Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow said at a November 2013 press conference, discussing the company’s intent to request the payload review.

“They wanted to know, before they go through a lot of engineering design, analysis, and investment, whether there were going to be any showstoppers,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Feb. 4.

“In this particular case, it looked like a really good idea that the government as a whole is supportive of,” Nield added.

The FAA’s review has the support of others in the commercial space industry. “I applaud the recent news from the FAA regarding the Bigelow Aerospace payload review,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a speech at the FAA conference Feb. 4. “You’re doing the right thing.”

Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer Credit: CSF
Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Eric Stallmer Credit: CSF

The payload review, first reported by Reuters Feb. 3, was interpreted by many as an endorsement by the U.S. government of lunar property rights for private companies. Nield said that was not the intent of the FAA’s review.

“We’re not talking about property rights at this point,” he said. “What we’re talking about is having the U.S. government have a regulatory framework that provides some certainty so they will be free to proceed with their plans and raising of funds.”

Nield said more work was needed on that regulatory framework to ensure the government was able to meet its obligations under accords like the Outer Space Treaty to provide oversight of activities by the private sector. “That might be an area where Congress and the administration and industry might want to get together” and review ways to do so, he said.

In the past, the FAA has expressed an interest in what’s known as “on-orbit authority.” FAA has the ability to license launches and reentries, but has no ability to regulate other commercial activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) or beyond. Agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration do regulate commercial communications and remote sensing in space, but other activities are not explicitly in any agency’s jurisdiction.

Although Nield didn’t discuss such authority, the concept has the support of Bigelow. “Congress needs to explicitly give AST the responsibility and authority to license LEO and beyond LEO activities that are not currently addressed by the FCC, NOAA, or other agencies,” Gold said.

“This is the beginning of a process, not the end,” Gold said of the payload review. “This response represents a first step by AST to use what authority it has to create a safe and attractive environment for commercial lunar development.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...