The U.S. has begun steps to encourage commercial activity and development on the moon. Corporations can now stake claims to lunar territory through an existing licensing process for space launches.
The Federal Aviation Administration, in a previously undisclosed late-December letter to Bigelow Aerospace, said 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, experts said, 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.
However, the FAA letter noted a concern flagged by the U.S. State Department that “the national regulatory framework, in its present form, is ill-equipped to enable the U.S. government to fulfill its obligations” under a 1967 United Nations treaty, which, in part, governs activities on the moon.
The United Nations Outer Space treaty, in part, requires countries to authorize 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.
“We didn’t give (Bigelow Aerospace) a license to land on the moon. 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 U.S. company to engage in this activity that has high-level policy implications,” said the FAA letter’s author, George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation.
“We recognize the private sector’s need to protect its assets and personnel on the moon or on other celestial bodies,” the FAA wrote in the December letter to Bigelow Aerospace. The company, based in Nevada, is developing the inflatable space habitats. Bigelow requested the policy statement from the FAA, which oversees commercial space transportation in the U.S.
The letter was coordinated with U.S. departments of State, Defense, Commerce, as well as NASA and other agencies involved in space operations. It expands the FAA’s scope from launch licensing to U.S. companies’ planned activities on the moon, a region currently governed only by the nearly 50-year old UN space treaty.
But the letter also points to more legal and diplomatic work that will have to be done to govern potential commercial development of the moon or other extraterrestrial bodies.