The US government is on the verge of approving the first private space mission to leave the Earth’s orbit, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The approval would allow California-headquartered start-up Moon Express to land an unmanned spacecraft and 20-pounds of scientific equipment on the moon in 2017.
The pending approval is important in two crucial and related ways. One, it sets a precedent for for-profit companies to work in tandem with the US government in space exploration beyond Earth's orbit. In addition, the approval would lay the diplomatic groundwork for how these private companies must interact with international regulations and longstanding treaties that call upon the US and other countries to supervise government and commercial aeronautic activity.
"With the emergence of new private players, it’s important to show some regulatory predictability," Scott Pace, a former senior NASA official and current George Washington University professor, told The Wall Street Journal.
Recent years have already seen NASA working with entrepreneurs toward progress in space. Entrepreneur Elon Musks’ company SpaceX currently runs commercial cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station in conjunction with NASA. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is one of six government-contract holders who provide flight services for NASA missions.
Part of the impetus for these businesses' space programs is a shared belief that the Earth's resources are exhaustible and that humans must look to space for the next chapter of humanity.
When asked how to save Earth at a recent conference in Los Angeles, Mr. Bezos of Blue Origin said simply: "By going into outer space."
Similarly, the Moon Express website calls the moon "an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future." They list some of these resources as rare earth elements, Helium-3, platinum group metals, and "moon rocks."
The company, which is also vying for Google's Lunar X Prize for the development of a lunar spacecraft, has reportedly been in discussion with the government for the moon mission for months. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, has reportedly been in similar talks about a 2018 unmanned Mars mission. The Moon Express approval may be the first of many as the government looks to private companies to carry on mankind's exploration of the cosmos.