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

WASHINGTON — Moon Express said Aug. 3 that it has won a first-of-its-kind regulatory approval from the U.S. government for a commercial lunar lander the company is developing.

The approval, dated July 20, comes in the form of a payload review of the Moon Express MX-1E spacecraft by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, part of the launch licensing process run by that office. That payload review involved discussions among several government agencies, including the State Department and NASA.

“The FAA has determined that the launch of the payload does not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States,” the FAA said in an Aug. 3 fact sheet about the payload review.

“This is our license to leave Earth orbit,” said Bob Richards, chief executive and co-founder of Moon Express, of the payload review approval in an interview. “It removes what had become the most serious barrier to our mission plans for next year.”

Payload reviews are a standard part of the commercial launch licensing process, but posed a particular issue for Moon Express because of its plans to go to the Moon. Current federal law gives no government agency clear oversight of such missions, raising questions of how the U.S. would uphold its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty to perform “authorization and continuing supervision” of missions.

Moon Express dealt with the issue by submitting in April what it called a “mission approval” request, which combined the standard payload review process with additional voluntary information disclosures. That additional information covered details about the company’s spacecraft, how it would avoid harmful interference with other spacecraft, and planetary protection protocols.

Richards said that the additional information was largely accepted by the interagency review. “In general, nothing changed in what we submitted, but we did provide additional clarifications when asked,” he said, such as technical details about the spacecraft. “But for the big questions regarding the Outer Space Treaty, it looks like we got those right.”

There were reports as early as May that the interagency review had accepted the information Moon Express provided and would approve the payload review, but final approval didn’t come until July 20. Richards said he didn’t have any specific insights into the discussions among the government agencies.

“We understood that the additional time was really focused on making sure they got it right,” he said. “We asked very significant questions that just didn’t have answers. This is setting domestic and foreign policy, so we understood the amount of time it took to make sure it was thoroughly thought through.”

The payload review applies solely to Moon Express, which plans to launch the MX-1E lunar lander in late 2017 designed, in part, to win the Google Lunar X Prize. However, Richards said he considers the payload review a precedent in that it shows how a company planning any kind of mission beyond Earth orbit can win regulatory approval.

The payload review does not eliminate the broader issue of which agency should have oversight of “non-traditional” commercial missions in order to ensure they comply with the country’s treaty obligations. Such missions include not just lunar landers but proposals for asteroid prospecting and mining spacecraft, satellite servicing spacecraft and commercial space stations.

A report by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, delivered to Congress in April, suggested that the FAA be given that responsibility and use an approach similar to the payload review process that Moon Express followed. However, enacting that regulatory model would require legislation.

George Nield, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, has endorsed that proposal and said that Moon Express’ mission approval concept should only be considered a temporary solution to the issue of regulatory oversight of non-traditional missions. “What is being looked at right now is a band-aid fix because the system is broken,” he said at a space law symposium here in June. “There clearly is a problem, and we need to fix that.”

“In the absence of legislative relief,” the FAA fact sheet stated, “the FAA will continue to work with the commercial space industry to provide support for non-traditional missions on a case-by-case basis when the law permits.”

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...