Moon Express announced early Wednesday, August 3, that it had received a green light from the United States government to proceed with the first private mission to land on the moon. For the past several months, a number of federal agencies, including the FAA, NASA, and the State Department, have been digesting the information provided by Moon Express, covering all aspects of its planned mission as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The resulting product, called a Mission Approval, is the first of its kind that any national government has issued.

The Mission Approval was necessary because of a provision of the Outer Space Treaty that stipulates that the signatories are responsible for the activities of their citizens on other celestial bodies, such as the moon.

The treaty was signed in the 1960s, long before anyone contemplated commercial operations on the moon.

Among the issues that had to be resolved between Moon Express and the federal government were planetary protection (i.e. making sure the moon is not contaminated by Earth microbes) and noninterference with areas of historical and cultural significance, such as the Apollo landing sites.

In a telephone interview, Moon Express co-founder and CEO Dr. Bob Richards expressed deep satisfaction with the process that led to the Mission Approval. The relative speed with which it happened and the responsiveness of the government officials involved demonstrated the commitment of the United States to facilitate the commercial development of the moon, Richards opined.

The process that Moon Express went through should serve as a model for other private companies seeking to commence commercial operations on the moon and other worlds, such as Mars. Legislation is pending in Congress that will codify the procedure once it is passed and signed into law.

With the government approval and a launch contract with a company called Rocket Lab in hand, Moon Express has a clear path to attempt the first private moon landing before the deadline of the competition at the end of 2017.

The site for the first landing has not been decided upon yet and may not be until just before launch. It will likely be a relatively flat, unobstructed Mare where landing will be relatively easy

A number of other teams, particularly an Israeli group called SpaceIL, which also has a launch contract, are in the competition, as well.

The first private team that lands on the moon will have accomplished a feat that will, in its own way, be as historic as the first Apollo moon landing in 1969. A private moon landing will usher in a new age, it is hoped, of space travel more for profit than prestige, though lots of glory will redound to the first team to accomplish the feat.

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