The clearance is a temporary and one-time solution to bridge the legal and regulatory quagmire facing Moon Express, which plans to land a suitcase-sized spacecraft called the MX-1E on the lunar surface in time to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize.
But the FAA's decision sets a precedent for other X Prize contenders and commercial space expeditions, including SpaceX's planned 2018 mission to Mars.
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So far, only government agencies have flown spacecraft beyond Earth's orbit.
"A major milestone has been achieved here for commercial space activities," Elliot Pulham, chief executive with the Space Foundation, a Colorado-based advocacy group, said in a statement.
After months of discussions, government officials ultimately agreed with Moon Express plans for how it could ensure U.S. compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that governments are responsible for what their non-government entities do in space.
Three specific areas of concern are planetary protection, which deals with ensuring Earth microbes do not contaminate potential indigenous life on another body; non-interference with other space activities; and continuous monitoring.
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As part of the agreement, NASA will serve as science and technical advisors, but not regulators, Richards said in an interview.
"We proposed a scenario that built on the existing FAA mission-approval framework, such as what would be needed for an Earth-orbiting satellite, and then added a series of voluntary disclosures that we speculated would be needed for the federal government to satisfy itself that it was being compliant to its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty," Richards said. "This is a very important transition.
"What is being looked at right now is a Band-Aid fix because the system is broken," George Nield, head of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said at an American Bar Association space law forum in June.
"In the absence of legislative relief, the FAA will continue to work with the commercial space industry to provide support for non-traditional missions on a case-by-case basis when the law permits," the FAA said.
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