Stage set for private missions to moon, Mars

Moon Express lander
An artist’s conception shows Moon Express’ MX-1 lander extending its robotic arm to take a “selfie” of the spacecraft on the lunar surface with Earth in the background. (Credit: Moon Express)

After months of discussion, federal agencies are closing in on a process to approve commercial missions to other celestial bodies – including the moon, Mars and asteroids.

The groundwork for the process was laid in April, when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told Congress that the Transportation Department was the most appropriate entity to approve new kinds of commercial space missions such as on-orbit satellite servicing and trips beyond Earth orbit.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies are “working through the interagency process to ensure a mechanism is in place that permits emerging commercial space operations,” FAA spokesman Hank Price said in a statement emailed to GeekWire.

The issue was brought to a head when Moon Express, one of the companies chasing the Google Lunar X Prize, asked the FAA to review its plans to put a lander on the moon next year. The FAA is part of the Transportation Department. Its Office of Commercial Space Transportation is currently in charge of approving commercial space launches and re-entries, but not activities in orbit or in deep space.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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