Moon Express's MX-1 lander. Credit: Moon Express artist's concept

PHOENIX — Concerned that regulatory uncertainty could block its plans to launch a lunar lander mission next year, Moon Express has proposed an alternative approach for carrying out a required payload review that could keep its plans on schedule while a more permanent legislative solution is developed.

The company announced April 8 that it has submitted to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration a request for a payload review of its planned lunar lander, offering additional information that it hopes will bridge a regulatory gap.

At issue is a provision in Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that requires countries to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” of activities in space by companies and organizations under their jurisdiction. That is usually performed in the U.S. through a licensing process for launches as well as communications and Earth imaging.

However, no federal government agency has authority to oversee operations of commercial spacecraft beyond Earth orbit. That has raised concerns about how the U.S. would meet its Article 6 obligations for authorization and supervision for such missions.

Bob Richards, co-founder and chief executive of Moon Express, said in a recent interview he believes that uncertainty could prevent the company from getting a launch license for its lunar landers. Those spacecraft will be launched starting in 2017 on Electron rockets from Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company whose launches will be licensed by the FAA.

Part of the FAA’s launch licensing process is a payload review, which includes an interagency review of the payload to identify any national security or treaty obligation issues. Richards said he’s been advised that, in Moon Express’ case, the U.S. State Department would decline to approve the review since there is no mechanism for the U.S. to provide the authorization and supervision required by the treaty.

Richards said that, to overcome that barrier, his company has been working with industry and government officials on ways to address the State Department’s concern. His solution is what Moon Express calls a “mission approval,” which combines the existing payload review process with additional information voluntarily provided by Moon Express.

“We believe our ‘Mission Approval’ process is a synergistic arrangement that can be implemented in a manner that is timely for our 2017 launch requirements,” Richards said in a statement. That approach, he believes, will allow Moon Express “to continue to execute on our business plans under U.S. law while ensuring our activities are consistent with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.”

The additional voluntary disclosures that are part of the mission approval process provide further details about the lunar lander mission Moon Express is planning. That includes information about planetary protection and how the company would avoid harmful interference with other spacecraft or historic sites on the moon.

Moon Express sees the mission approval process as a short-term solution until the government finds a permanent means to approve commercial missions beyond Earth orbit. Some in industry, as well as the FAA, have supported a concept called “mission authorization” that would give the FAA oversight of “nontraditional” commercial space missions, eliminating any treaty concerns by the State Department.

The FAA previously attempted to address this issue when Bigelow Aerospace sought a payload review for a proposed lunar habitat in late 2013. While the company has no near-term plans to launch such a spacecraft, it requested the payload review to identify any regulatory issues such a mission might face.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation concluded that it could use its launch licensing authority to protect companies operating on the moon from harmful interference. However, it acknowledged there were uncertainties about how to implement Article 6 that would require action by the White House and Congress to resolve.

One key member of Congress endorses Moon Express’ approach. “The mission approval framework created by Moon Express is an elegant solution to increase regulatory certainty and comply with treaty obligations,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) in a statement.

Bridenstine is expected to seek a long-term solution, along the lines of a mission authorization model, in comprehensive space legislation he plans to introduce during the 32nd Space Symposium next week. “I look forward to building off this proposal in the American Space Renaissance Act, comprehensive space legislation I will be introducing soon,” he said.

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...