Three entities have reached the moon – the United States, U.S.S.R. (now Russia) and China. A small start-up out of Cape Canaveral, Florida could be the fourth. Today, Moon Express announced they received the green light from the Federal Aviation Administration to put a robotic lander on the moon.

“Up until now all commercial companies have been limited to operations in Earth’s orbit, and only governments have sent missions to other worlds,” reads a post on Moon Express’ website. “With this landmark ruling, Moon Express has become the first private company approved to literally go out of this world as a pioneer of commercial space missions beyond Earth orbit.”

This ruling paves the way for private companies to push deeper into the final frontier. Companies like SpaceX are already regularly placing payloads into Earth’s orbit. But it’s this ruling and others likely to come that will make missions like Moon Express’ moon lander and SpaceX’s trip to Mars become reality.

Who is Moon Express

Casual followers of the private space industry know all about SpaceX. But what about Moon Express? The company was founded in 2010 by three people, each full of ambition. Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain and Dr. Barney Pell came together to fulfill their common vision – be a leader in commercial space exploration and innovation.

That vision is laser-focused on the Moon. And a successful landing would bring a nice reward. If they are first. $20 million is at stake for the Google Lunar X Prize. The company already has two milestone prizes under its belt – the Landing Prize ($1 million) and the Imaging Prize ($250,000).

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But why the moon? Some reasons are obvious. Its proximity makes it an obvious target for a space-faring company or country. But it’s the resources potentially available that’s drawing the eye of many private companies.

“In 15 years, the moon will be an important part of Earth’s economy, and potentially our second home,” says Jain. “Imagine that.”

Richards calls our neighbor “an economic game changer for humanity’s future” after water was discovered in recent years. “Water is the oil of the solar system, and the moon has become a gas station in the sky,” Richards added.

Moon Express still has work to do

Receiving permission from the FAA was a vital step, but there are many more in the company’s future. The lander making up the mission? They still need to build it. Plus, the rocket their lander plans to fly on hasn’t even flown before. Moon Express is teaming up with Rocket Labs USA to launch the MX-1E lunar lander aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab Electron rocket

The hurdles are big, but not insurmountable. If everything goes according to plan, Moon Express could be the first private company to land on the Moon late next year.

What would the first mission look like? While Moon Express has lofty dreams of taking advantage of the Moon’s resources, the first mission would be much smaller in scope. The plan is to take up a handful of payloads along with a camera. This ‘mooncam’ would be a mini observatory on the moon’s surface and accessible through the internet.

Moon Express executives believe low-cost missions to the moon would cost less than $10 million. To put that in perspective, launching a payload on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 costs $62 million.

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It all sounds great, but we’ll have to wait and see what late 2017 brings. I’ll never fault any of these companies for dreaming big, but they don’t always meet their launch dates or costs. I’m crossing my fingers their ambition becomes reality.

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