US government agencies are working on temporary rules to allow a private company to land a spacecraft on the moon next year, while Congress weighs a more permanent legal framework to govern future commercial missions to the moon, Mars and other destinations beyond Earth’s orbit, officials said.
Plans by private companies to land spacecraft on the moon or launch them out of Earth’s orbit face legal obstacles because the United States has not put in place regulations to govern space activities, industry and government officials said.
“We do not have formal authority today to deal with what happens on orbit or on other planetary terrestrial bodies. That’s the issue that we’re wrestling with,” said George Nield, head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. “What is being looked at right now is a Band-Aid fix because the system is broken,” Nield said at an American Bar Association space law forum in Washington on Wednesday.
A 1967 international treaty obliges the United States and other signatories to authorize and supervise space activities by its non-government entities. But no US agency has authority to regulate commercial space activities outside of rocket launches, spacecraft re-entries into the atmosphere and operations of telecommunications and remote sensing satellites in Earth orbit. The issue is coming to a head in part because of a request by Florida-based Moon Express for permission from the US government to land a spacecraft on the moon in 2017. So far, only government agencies have flown satellites beyond Earth’s orbit.
“No commercial company has ever asked to go outside of Earth orbit and go elsewhere before. We’re a pathfinder out of necessity,” Moon Express Chief Executive Bob Richards said in an interview on Monday.
Richards and Nield declined to comment on what specifically Moon Express is proposing.
Other countries are moving faster to establish rules for space launches in compliance with international treaties. Luxembourg last week announced it was partnering with two US companies interested in mining asteroids and set aside 200 million euros to woo space firms to relocate. The United Arab Emirates also intends to serve as a commercial space haven. “We don’t want to create the environment where there’s a competitive advantage for payloads to go overseas,” said space attorney Michael Gold, who chairs the FAA’s commercial space advisory panel.