Fancy setting up a nasi lemak stall on the moon? Private companies can now claim lunar territory through a licensing process for space launches.
In a remarkable previously undisclosed letter from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to a privately-owned US-based aerospace company, details have emerged that the FAA, which has the authority to give out licenses for commercial space launches to private contractors, is basically allowing adventurous entrepreneurs to set up shop on the moon.
Dated last December, the letter was FAA's reply to Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace's request for a policy statement to its proposal to develop inflatable space habitats, and states that the agency intends to “leverage the FAA’s existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis.”
In other words, Bigelow could set up one of its proposed inflatable habitats on the moon, and expect to have exclusive rights to that territory as well as related areas that might be tapped for mining, exploration and other activities.
If the letter's content sounds exciting for anyone who has ever thought about setting up a nasi lemak stall on what is perhaps the second most valuable piece of real estate in the Solar System, please note that there are caveats.
Within the letter itself, the FAA notes a concern by the US State Department that “the national regulatory framework, in its present form, is ill-equipped to enable the US government to fulfill its obligations” under a 1967 United Nations treaty, which governs activities on the moon.
The UN Outer Space treaty, in part, requires countries to authorise and supervise activities of non-government entities that are operating in space, including the moon. It also bans nuclear weapons in space, prohibits national claims to celestial bodies and stipulates that space exploration and development should benefit all countries.
In other words, the space launch licenses granted by the FAA may not be recognised by other countries. Bummer.
According to the author of the FAA letter, George Nield, who is associate administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation, the agency “didn’t give (Bigelow Aerospace) a license to land on the moon."
So what exactly does the license entitle its holder to? Nield says: "We’re talking about a payload review that would potentially be part of a future launch license request. But it served a purpose of documenting a serious proposal for a US company to engage in this activity that has high-level policy implications.”
NEXT PAGE: If neither the FAA nor the 1967 UN space treaty can agree on who has a right to colonise the moon, then who does?
“It’s very much a wild west kind of mentality and approach right now,” says John Thornton, chief executive of private owned Astrobotic, a start-up lunar transportation and services firm competing in a US$30mil Google-backed moon exploration XPrize contest.
Among the pending issues is lunar property and mineral rights, a topic that was discussed and tabled in the 1970s in a sister UN proposal called the Moon Treaty. It was signed by just nine countries, including France, but not the US.
“It is important to remember that many space-faring nations have national companies that engage in commercial space activities. They will definitely want to be part of the rule making process,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor of space law at University of Mississippi.
Bigelow Aerospace is expected to begin testing a space habitat aboard the International Space Station this year. The company intends to then operate free-flying orbital outposts for paying customers, including government agencies, research organisations, businesses and even tourists.
If all goes well, Bigelow would follow up with a series of bases on the moon beginning around 2025, a project estimated to cost about US$12bil. Company founder Robert Bigelow says he intends to invest US$300mil of his own funds, about US$2.5bil in hardware and services from Bigelow Aerospace and raise the rest from private investors.
The FAA’s decision “doesn’t mean that there’s ownership of the moon,” says Bigelow. “It just means that somebody else isn’t licensed to land on top of you or land on top of where exploration and prospecting activities are going on, which may be quite a distance from the lunar station.”
Other companies could soon be testing rights to own what they bring back from the moon. Moon Express, another aspiring lunar transportation company, and also an XPrize contender, intends to return moon dust or rocks on its third mission.
“The company does not see anything, including the Outer Space Treaty, as being a barrier to our initial operations on the moon,” says Moon Express co-founder and president Bob Richards. That includes “the right to bring stuff off the moon and call it ours.”
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