For anyone who grew up dreaming of setting foot on the moon, becoming a NASA astronaut might not be the only way to make that dream a reality before long.
Moon Express, a Silicon Valley-based commercial space exploration company that hopes to eventually "mine" the natural resources of the moon, officially became the first private company in the world to receive permission to travel into space. The historic green light, which was granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the same government agency that regulates on-Earth flight, comes after months of negotiation between the company and government officials.
“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity,” said Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards in a statement.
While Moon Express has the go-ahead, it does not have free reign to explore the solar system at will. The FAA granted specific permission for the company's planned lunar expedition in 2017 under the conditions that the project receive oversight from multiple other government agencies, including NASA, in the interest of safety and national security. There was previously no procedure in place to grant space exploration permission to a commercial firm.
Moon Express' big mission in 2017 will be to land a robotic lunar module — no humans will make the company's first voyage — on the surface to collect data and transmit pictures and video. If the company succeeds, it will earn a $20 million pay day from Google's Lunar XPRIZE competition, a contest for private companies in pursuit of space exploration.
The Moon Express mission will also be carrying payloads for six other clients, including NASA, Google, the International Lunar Observatory, Celestis, the University of Maryland and the National Laboratories of Frascati, Italy. Those payloads could include mustard plants from NASA that the agency wants to use to test plant gestation on the moon and equipment, like new retro reflectors, that the University of Maryland hopes to use for various tests.