Team Indus, the Indian contestant in the Google Lunar Xprize, seems to be ready for a planned December 28, 2017 launch to the moon. The group has secured a launch contract for a PSLV XL rocket, courtesy of Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, the Indian equivalent of NASA. It intends to share the cost of the moon shot with Team Hakuto, the Japanese entrant to the private moon race. However, Team Indus as of this writing lacks official government permission to go to the moon, according to the Indian Express.

Why does Team Indus need government permission to go to the moon?

Besides whatever local regulations exists in India, the Indian government has to approve any flight to the moon or any other destination thanks to Article VI in the outer space treaty. The article states that every government that is a signatory to the treaty is responsible for the activities of non-governmental entities in space. States are required to grant approval for private voyages to the moon.

The problem is that the Google Lunar XPrize has caught governments around the world unprepared. Before the private race the moon, signatories to the Outer Space Treaty did not have procedures for approval of private expeditions to the moon or anywhere else in space.

Moon Express, for example, underwent an ad hoc procedure involving a number of agencies and departments of the United States government to come up with the first ever mission approval for its planned flight to the moon in the competition.

What does the Indian government need before granting a mission approval?

The Indian government is apparently asking questions concerning the nature of the launch, what the Google Lunar XPrize competition is all about, and certain intellectual property issues.

So far it is uncertain who is supposed to answer these questions as Team Indus is currently unaware of them.

The problem is that the clock is ticking. If Team Indus and its co-passenger Team Hakuto do not get a mission approval, they cannot shoot for the moon and will be out of the Google Lunar XPrize race to the moon. It would be an incredible case of the technical and economic challenges of a private moon shot having been met, only to be stymied by government paperwork and bureaucratic inertia.

Where does this leave the Google Lunar XPrize?

SpaceIL, an Israeli team, has had to drop out of the race because of scheduling problems with its SpaceX Falcon 9, brought on by an accident that destroyed one of the rockets on the pad. If Team Indus and Team Hakuto are left on the launch pad under the weight of government bureaucracy, the only two contestants that are left are Moon Express and Synergy Moon. The two teams seem to have everything in hand for their moon shots, except they depend on unproven launch vehicles, Moon Express plans to launch on a Rocket Labs Electron Rocket which is still in the flight testing stage. Synergy Moon intends to launch on an Interorbital Systems Neptune rocket which has apparently never flown. Will any team launch for the moon before December 31, 2017? Stay tuned.