The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Wednesday in Washington that U.S. companies can stake claims to lunar territory through an existing licensing process for space launches.
It said in a letter to Bigelow Aerospace, that 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.”
Experts say, 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, was ill-equipped to enable the U.S. government to fulfill its obligations” under a 1967 UN treaty, which, in part, governs activities on the moon.
The UN Outer Space treaty, in part, requires countries to authorise 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.
George Nield, Associate Administrator for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation, has denied giving Bigelow Aerospace, a license to land on the moon.
He said government was only considering a payload review that would potentially be part of a future launch license request.
Nield said it also served a purpose of documenting a serious proposal for a U.S. company to engage in this activity that has high-level policy implications.
“We recognise the private sector’s need to protect its assets and personnel on the moon or on other celestial bodies,” he said.
He said the FAA wrote in the December to Bigelow Aerospace and the letter was coordinated with U.S. departments of State, Defence, Commerce, as well as NASA and other agencies involved in space operations.
Nield said the letter expands the FAA’s scope from launch licencing to U.S. companies’ planned activities on the moon, a region currently governed only by the nearly 50-year old UN space treaty.
“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,’’ he added.
He said the letter also pointed to more legal and diplomatic work that would have to be done to govern potential commercial development of the moon or other extraterrestrial bodies.
John Thornton, Chief Executive of private owned Astrobotic, said it was a very much a “Wild West” kind of mentality and approach right now.
He said part of the pending issues was lunar property and mineral rights, a topic that was discussed and tabled in the 1970s in a sister UN proposal called the Moon Treaty.
Thornton said the treaty was signed by just nine countries, including France, excluding the U.S.
Joanne Gabrynowicz, a Professor of Space Law at University of Mississippi, said it was important to remember that many space-faring nations have national companies that engage in commercial space activities.
He said they would definitely want to be part of the rule making process.
Robert Bigelow, founder Bigelow Aerospace, said they were expected to begin testing a space habitat aboard the International Space Station this year.
He said the company intends to operate free-flying orbital outposts for paying customers, including government agencies, research organisations, businesses and even tourists.
“That will be followed by a series of bases on the moon beginning around 2025, a project estimated to cost about 12 billion dollars.
“I intend to invest 300 million dollars of my own funds, about 2.5 billion dollars in hardware and services from Bigelow Aerospace and raise the rest from private investors,’’ he added.
Bigelow said the FAA’s decision doesn’t mean that there was ownership of the moon.
“It is an indication 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,’’ he said.
He said other companies could soon be testing rights to own what they bring back from the moon.
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