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California Company Gets Approval to Put Robotic Lander on Moon


An artist’s conception of Moon Express’s MX-1 lander on the moon. Credit Moon Express

A small California start-up has received the green light from the federal government to do something that NASA has not done for more than four decades: land on the moon.

Moon Express, based in Mountain View, Calif., announced Wednesday that it had received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to set a robotic lander on the moon.

That feat would win the Google Lunar X Prize competition for the first private organization to reach the moon and an accompanying $ 20 million reward.

But more than the prize, company officials say that it will be the opening of a profitable frontier for entrepreneurs. “Rephrasing John F. Kennedy,” said Naveen Jain, the Moon Express chairman, “we choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s a good business.”

Moon Express has a ways to go before it can reach the lunar surface, which it hopes to do next year. It still has to assemble the lander. The rocket that it plans to launch on has yet to fly even once.

And one of its competitors could beat it to the moon, and the $ 20 million.

The approval reflects an effort to encourage 21st-century commercial space endeavors while staying within an international space treaty written 49 years ago when outer space was a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the idea of a company going to the moon an unlikely fantasy.

“There are a lot of things in the treaties we’re testing the limits of right now,” said Henry R. Hertzfeld, a professor of space policy and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “We’re trying to define them in ways that will encourage private investment and private opportunities but not violate any international agreements.”

At present, commercial ventures have gone as far out as geosynchronous orbit, the telecommunication satellites that fly 22,236 miles above the Earth. Moon Express wants to go 10 times as far, to the moon, a place where just three nations have landed: the United States, the Soviet Union and, more recently, China.

The X Prizes, started by Peter H. Diamandis, an entrepreneur, seek to recreate the barnstorming prizes of the early 20th century that spurred aviation advances like Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. The first X Prize, for the first private piloted vehicle to reach space, led to the development of SpaceShipOne, a rocket-powered plane that made two flights in two weeks in 2004 to win the $ 10 million prize.

In the bubbly optimism that followed, the X Prize Foundation enlisted Google to finance reaching the loftier target of the moon. The Google Lunar X Prize, announced in 2007, called for putting a spacecraft on the moon that would be able to send back video and images and also move more than 500 meters. The first team to achieve that would claim $ 20 million; second place would be rewarded with $ 5 million.

More than 30 teams signed up, including Moon Express, founded in 2010 by Mr. Jain, who made a fortune creating the website InfoSpace and then lost most of it in the internet bust of 2000; Robert D. Richards, a space entrepreneur; and Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist.

The original deadline, at the end of 2012, was extended several times; now the remaining 16 teams have until Dec. 31, 2017, to claim the prize. Two teams, Moon Express and SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, have secured launch contracts for their spacecraft.

As Moon Express worked on its MX-1 lander, company officials realized they had another hurdle: paperwork and international treaties.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits nations from claiming sovereignty over the moon or other parts of the solar system. It also states: “The activities of nongovernmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate state party to the treaty.”

Dr. Richards, Moon Express’s chief executive, said that would have been a roadblock, because the United States did not have any procedures for authorizing and supervising what companies like Moon Express want to do.

“Any application to the U.S. government would have been vetoed by the State Department, due to the lack of regulatory frameworks that would allow the U.S. government to remain in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty,” he said.

Instead, the process for approval was routed through the F.A.A., which regulates commercial rocket launches and payloads headed to space. In 2013, Bigelow Aerospace, a company that builds inflatable structures that could one day be used as lunar habitats, suggested that the F.A.A. use this process to coordinate competing commercial efforts, at least among American companies.

Moon Express has now employed this payload review process for its lunar trip. The F.A.A. sent its approval on July 20, the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

Moon Express said it had not yet decided on a landing site, but stated it would stay away from the Apollo landing sites and other NASA artifacts.

Mr. Jain said that low-cost missions to the moon — under $ 10 million — would transform space exploration. But the company has revealed little about its customers and much of the hoped-for business like the mining of platinum and helium-3 is speculative. (The helium-3 would be for fusion power plants that do not yet exist.)

Mr. Jain said the greatest opportunities were the ones not yet imagined, just as Apple, when it created the iPhone, did not foresee the explosion of apps that would run on the device.

“More importantly,” Mr. Jain said, “we don’t know what the Pokémon Go of the moon is going to be.”

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