CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. government has taken a preliminary step to encourage commercial development of the moon.
According to documents obtained by Reuters, U.S. companies can stake claims to lunar territory through an existing licensing process for space launches. In a letter sent to Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace in late December, the Federal Aviation Administration 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.
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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 U.N. treaty that, in part, governs activities on the moon.
The Outer Space Treaty requires countries to authorize and supervise activities of non-governmental 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.
The letter told Bigelow Aerospace that FAA officials "recognize the private sector's need to protect its assets and personnel on the moon or on other celestial bodies."
Bigelow Aerospace requested the policy statement from the FAA, which oversees U.S. commercial space transportation. The letter was coordinated with U.S. departments of State, Defense, Commerce, as well as NASA and other agencies involved in space operations.
The FAA's decision "doesn’t mean that there’s ownership of the moon," Bigelow Aerospace's founder, Robert Bigelow, told Reuters. "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."