The First Private Lunar Landing Was Just Approved

Moon Express will head to Earth’s nearest neighbor in 2017

Moon Express
An artist's concept of Moon Express's MX-1 Micro Lander, which may head to the moon as soon as next year. NASA/Moon Express, Inc.

When the United States sent the first men to the moon, it took a years-long government effort and billions of dollars to get them there. But all that is about to change. As Kenneth Chang reports for The New York Times, a private company has become the first to gain approval by the United States to land on the moon—and it may win $20 million for doing so.

Moon Express, a privately funded commercial space company backed by a group of Silicon Valley investors, recently received the green light from the government for a 2017 moon landing mission. The company plans to send a robotic lander to the moon in its bid to win the elusive Google X Lunar Prize in the process. The prize, funded by Google, aims to encourage space exploration with a tempting $20 million reward that will be given to the first company to successfully place a robot on the moon’s surface, travel at least 500 meters and transmit HD video and images back to Earth.

Thus far, the concept of obtaining permission for a lunar has been a sticking point for would-be moon shooters because no regulatory framework yet exists to do so, Loren Grush explains for The Verge. To get around that, Grush reports that Moon Express worked with various agencies to create what she calls a "regulatory patch" to allow a mission to continue while legislators ponder how to regulate companies headed to the crater-pocked satellite's surface in the future.

There’s just one problem, as Chang writes: Not only has Moon Express never sent up a rocket or even assembled its lunar lander, but it faces stiff competition for the prize. Sixteen teams remain in the running, and an Israeli company called SpaceIL already has a verified contract to send its lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher in 2017.

However, Moon Express is the first to get what’s Mike Wall characterizes as official—and, for now, exclusive—government approval for the landing itself. Various governmental entities like NASA, the Department of Defense, the State Department, NOAA and even the FCC were involved in the decision, writes Wall.

If Moon Express does win the grand prize, it will gain international acclaim along with its existing winnings of $1.25 million in prizes so far. The company calls the moon “the eighth continent”—a place humans must explore to secure their future. But that view isn’t shared by everyone: After all, it’s been 44 years since Apollo 17, the last mission of its kind, landed on the moon.

NASA has been emphatic about its desire to explore elsewhere in space instead—and the lunar surface is so desolate that it’s kind of understandable that places like Mars or far-off asteroids beckon. Companies like Moon Express are fighting the image of the moon as a romantic afterthought, however. Will a successful private moonshot change the way we think about our nearest neighbor? Perhaps—but no matter what, it will set the tone for a whole new model of lunar exploration.

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