“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 humanity."
Moon Express just became the first private company in history to be approved for a lunar surface mission. The California-based startup plans to land its 20-pound MX-1 spacecraft on the Moon in 2017.
"This is not only a milestone, but really a threshold for the entire commercial space industry," Moon Express CEO Bob Richards told Space.com. "Somebody had to be first."
The decision, announced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday, may sound the starting pistol for a new era in spaceflight, defined at least as much by commercial ventures and resource extraction as by scientific and exploratory missions. Mining the Moon for valuable materials has been a hot topic of speculation for years, but with the FAA's official greenlight, Moon Express is poised to force the issue.
That's not to suggest, however, that the company's 2017 lander will return to Earth laden with overflowing chests of Moon booty. At this point, the FAA has only approved Moon Express's request to conduct a lunar surface mission, not mine it for resources.
"It appears that the FAA has granted a licence to Moon Express to carry out a permissible space activity," Sa'id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, told me. "The licence does not give Moon Express any exclusive or property right. It merely permits Moon Express to launch a spacecraft, travel to the Moon, and land there."
If successful, Moon Express's landing will mark the first time any American organization has soft-landed a spacecraft on the Moon since Apollo 17 touched down in 1972. This kind of achievement is exactly what the emerging commercial space sector has always been hyped to accomplish. By untethering exploration from the purview of government agencies alone, space travel is becoming faster, cheaper, and more widely accessible to the public.
Moon Express testing out its MTV-1X lunar lander test vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in late 2014. Video: Moon Express/YouTube
Indeed, Moon Express already has some exciting experiments lined up for its mission. According to Richards, the lander might install a small "mooncam" observatory at its landing site that would be viewable to anyone through YouTube. The company is also angling to nab the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, so it will have to demonstrate that its MX-1 vehicle can move at least 500 meters, and send high definition imagery back to Earth.
But ultimately, Moon Express has its eyes on an even bigger prize: The Moon's bountiful resources. Our natural satellite contains many precious materials, such as water, iron ore, and helium-3. Even the Moon's normal regolith rock is treasured simply for its interplanetary exoticism.
"I believe that the first trillionaires will be generated by investments in space resources," Richards said in a 2014 Motherboard documentary. "Our goal is that in 2020, we'll bring something back that you can hold in your hand; between two to six kilograms of stuff. It could be worth upwards of a billion dollars. And then the game is on."
It will be interesting to see how many other commercial players end up joining this game by following Moon Express's lead. "There are already a number of private entities planning to go to the Moon and to carry out various activities there," Mosteshar told me.
"However, until and unless it becomes clear that exploitation of lunar resources is permitted, I would not expect many investors to risk vast sums of money on attempting to mine the Moon or other celestial bodies."
Striking that legal balance represents such uncharted territory that Moon Express had to work together with the FAA to figure out a temporary regulatory patch enabling the company to abide by both US law and international treaties for its 2017 mission. This is a promising cooperative starting point, but more comprehensive and consistent regulatory frameworks will have to be developed in order to ensure that off-Earth resources are managed sustainably.
To that point, some of the language that Moon Express executives have used regarding planetary mining is worth reflecting on, as the company celebrates its milestone achievement.
"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 humanity," said Richards in a statement.
Referring to the Moon as "Earth's eighth continent" seems dicey in light of the fact that all seven continents on our own planet are imperiled by human activity, much of it borne from unchecked industrial development. Likewise, Jain's past comparisons of lunar mining to ocean resource extraction poses similar problems.
"I [...] think the Moon will be treated no differently than the international water in our oceans," Jain told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "In this case, no one really owns the water but any company or country can mine the resources [...] as long as they follow certain safety/moral guidelines,"
Again, a statement like that would be much more comforting if Earth's oceans weren't in devastating ecological freefall as a result of human commercial pressures, much of which takes place in international waters.
Point being: We should tread carefully. Moon mining does have the potential to benefit humanity, but as with most commodities markets, the sticking will be ensuring that wealth generation does not slip into exploitation. Space exploration is our opportunity to transcend the self-destructive, provincial mindset nurtured by planetary living. Let's not screw it up.