From SpaceX to Moon Express, companies have a lot of red tape to wrangle before heading to the Great Beyond.
Falcon 9 launch in 2015. Image: SpaceX
You're a billionaire space company owner, and you want to take the next big step and send a spacecraft to the moon. You've built the rocket and bought time on a launch pad and established your mission goals. What's left before lift off?
Oh, yeah. The paperwork.
SpaceX, Blue Origin and, more recently, Moon Express have been garnering attention this year for endeavors to send spacecrafts into Earth's orbit and the moon. But getting these missions off the ground takes more permits and licenses than most people realize. If you want to leave the atmosphere, you have to get the government's blessing first.
Back in 1967, in the space race heyday, the world's major powers met and hammered out some essential rules. But it wasn't just for the sake of adding red tape—They also wanted to avoid world destruction. It was a tricky time. The U.S. and USSR were embattled in the Cold War, and both sides (and most other world leaders) were worried someone would get the bright idea to put nuclear weapons in orbit.
The Outer Space Treaty—full name: Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—was established. It concluded that regulation and oversight would be in the hands of each individual country for their specific government's missions and private launches, said Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, director of the International Institute of Space Law.
"The Outer Space Treaty is the most important space treaty there is," she told Motherboard in an email. "It functions like a Constitution for space and contains the fundamental principles—like prohibiting nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in space—by which nations have agreed to be governed."
Non-governmental agencies in the U.S. (a.k.a. anything that isn't NASA) have to go through a rigorous licensing Federal Aviation Administration process. The FAA handles everything related to U.S. flight—from tiny bush planes to hot air balloons to the plane you flew on to get home for Christmas—and commercial space flight. It's such a big deal that the FAA has a specific office dedicated to regulating commercial space flight.
The agency checks out the company's payload, its environmental impact, checks for national security and foreign policy concerns and makes sure the mission's insurance is up to par, FAA spokesman Hank Price said.
Silicon Valley-based company Moon Express was recently granted a "positive payload determination" by the FAA that essentially says the items they plan to send to the moon do not "jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States," he said, adding that it isn't a license to lift off just yet.
Even that pre-license process took three months, and required an extensive review process with the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense and other agencies, he said. The company's next step will be to apply for a launch license.
In the meantime, they've established a launch agreement—think of it like a rocket rental contract—with Rocket Lab, a company that launches other companies' satellites into orbit. Moon Express is already stating that it will launch in 2017 (which they'll have to do if they're going to win Google's Lunar XPRIZE for $20 million that will go to whichever company can land on the moon by the end of 2017).
This may seem like a buzzkill compared to the way Moon Express explains it—"Moon Express has become the first private company approved to literally go out of this world," they state on their website. But it is historic since this is the first payload approval made for a commercial mission set for the moon, and it's the first time a company has signed a contract for a lunar mission. One small step for this launch, but one big leap for the future of business on the moon.
Once a company has the FAA launch license, FAA's approval of its payload, an agreement with a launch company and an agreement with a private launch site or a government launch site, it still needs the right insurance.
Yes, space insurance is a thing.
Price said companies are required to get insurance that covers the cost of the rocket and any satellites or other items it's carrying, but not the launchpad itself. The insurance comes in hand if the rocket blows up, as demonstrated by SpaceX's Falcon 9 explosion that destroyed the rocket and a satellite last week that was intended to extend internet access into parts of Africa as part of Facebook's Internet.org project.
Policies for millions of dollars are issued by companies like XL Catlin and Marsh for the various stages of a mission, like launch, separation and in-orbit insurance.
Moon Express and companies like it state that they want to lay the groundwork for moon colonization. And organizations like Mars One want to establish human colonies on the red planet.
These efforts will require a lot of work in labs, but they'll also require just as much work in boardrooms and courtrooms to figure out just how much red tape is necessary to keep those who want to go to the Great Beyond in check.