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Next stop, the Moon: private company 'Moon Express' gets greenlight for 2017

The Florida-based company is the first to get government permission to fly beyond Earth’s orbit.

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The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. aboard in 1969. The FAA has granted permission to the first private Moon mission to fly beyond Earth's orbit in 2017.

NASA/Reuters/File

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Moon Express took one giant leap for private enterprise on Wednesday when it became the first company to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly beyond Earth’s orbit.

The company plans to fly a suitcase-sized robot to the moon for a two-week mission in 2017, said Bob Richards, the company's co-founder and chief executive officer, Reuters reported. The robot will conduct science experiments, send pictures and video to Earth, and travel with commercial cargo, including cremated human remains. The spacecraft is part of the company's mission to “reduce the cost of space exploration,” according to its website.

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“It’s been a very steep mountain,” Mr. Richards told Reuters in a telephone interview. “We had to lay the track at the same time that we wanted to do the mission.”

Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that the United States is responsible for non-governmental flights into space, until April 8th, when Moon Express submitted its application, no government agency was considered responsible for this type of flight.

The FAA was the natural choice, as it already has jurisdiction over commercial rocket launches in the United States. The administration led an interagency review of Moon Express's proposal, which included details on how the company would comply with the 1967 treaty.

“The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the US government and a pathfinder for private sector commercial missions beyond the Earth’s orbit,” Richards said in a statement on the company website.

“We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity.”

While proposals to land on Mars must allay concerns about disturbing any possible life, the lifeless moon has nothing that Earth-borne microbes could hurt. One concern that Moon Express did have to address: guaranteeing they would not disturb Apollo and other historic lunar landing sites.

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The company made the process easy because it “proposed a scenario that built on the existing FAA mission-approval framework," Richards told Reuters. This meant no new laws were necessary.

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NASA will advise the team, but not regulate their activities. The company hopes to bring "precious resources, metals, and Moon rocks back to Earth," said Naveen Jain, Moon Express chairman and co-founder.

This mission approval process could help chart the course for future flights, like those planned by Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), who plans to fly spacecraft to Mars in 2018. Other private space enterprises aim to mine asteroids, operate space labs, and repair and service satellites.

"The sky is not the limit for Moon Express," said Mr. Jain. "It is the launchpad."