Moon Express just got permission to send up a small robot about the size of a suitcase. It’s hardly a new Armstrong taking a second giant leap for mankind, or a rocket learning how to land so it can be reused. But it’s that they got the permission at all that makes it not just cool, but a massive change in how we go to space.
Just like you can’t just hop in an airplane and take off, traveling to space is a tightly regulated business. While science fiction authors and entrepreneurs have been speculating about the idea of privately colonizing the Moon or sending robots to mine asteroids for valuable materials, there has been one big roadblock. The government didn’t have any sort of regulatory framework or rules in place to explain how to do it. And without that, you couldn’t so much as launch a firecracker at space. The Moon Express is the first private space mission approved to leave Earth’s orbit, and the final piece of a puzzle the FAA has slowly been constructing. In February, it issued guidelines for manned space flights that private companies should follow.
There are still some thorny questions that need to be resolved before the space gold rush can truly begin. According to a 1967 treaty, no country, and thus no private entity, can lay claim to any patch of outer space. If a private company built a moon base, or an asteroid mine, the ownership and even legality of such a thing would be difficult to establish at best. However, clearing private missions to leave Earth is a small step for mankind to explore the universe, and that might well change human history.