Since the launch of Complex 17 here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, many of NASA's robotic planetary missions have skyrocketed. Soon, the two mbadive towers that once cradled the Delta 2 rockets will be knocked down. A new tenant, Moon Express, a small company with distant ambitions, is moving.
Next year, the company, with only 30 employees, claims to be the first private entity to put a small robotic lander on the moon and may earn $ 20m (£ 14.8m) in the Google Lunar Award competition X. You are investing at least $ 1.85 million to renovate buildings decades ago. The company is transforming a parking lot into a miniature moon landscape, and will also establish an engineering laboratory, a mission operations room and a test bed for spacecraft engines.
Moon Express would not need all of these facilities if their sole objective was to win the Lunar X Prize. His second spacecraft aims to land in 2019 near the south pole of the moon. A third larger spacecraft in 2020 will collect samples and then bring them back to Earth, the first lunar rocks haul since the return of a Soviet robotic probe in 1976.
But these plans almost came to a standstill a couple of years ago. years – not because of technological problems or financial deficits, but because of an international agreement known as the Outer Space Treaty, which commemorates its 50th anniversary this year.
The treaty details what countries are and can not do in space. Its supreme achievement was to prevent the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union from expanding into space. But the agreement can now get in the way of entrepreneurs with plans to go farther and faster in space than national agencies like NASA.
"It used to be something really, really hypothetical," said Fabio Tronchetti, a law professor in Harbin. Institute of Technology in China. "But now there are groups that are really serious, it changes everything."
The SpaceX rocket & # 39; Falcon 9 & # 39; exploded after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida (Reuters)
Robert D Richards, CEO of Moon Express – whose business plan is "to expand the economic sphere of the Earth to the Moon and beyond" – is far from To be the only entrepreneur looking for business opportunities beyond our planet.
Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, boldly proclaims that his company will begin sending settlers to Mars in a decade. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is using part of his fortune to finance his Blue Origin rocket company, and he predicts millions of people will live and work in space.
As these companies go where no business had come before, they raise issues that the Outer Space Treaty barely clarifies: what can private companies do in space? Can a company exploit the moon or an ast eroid and then sell what it has taken? How can countries regulate these businesses?
Internationally, countries have been discussing how to answer these questions. In the United States, Congress has begun to address regulatory issues. Some warn that if the United States does not establish pro-business policies, then new companies could move to other places, including seemingly unlikely places like Luxembourg.
A quick solution before launch
The outer space treaty – officially it is the Treaty on the principles governing the activities of States in the exploration and use of outer space – declares that "the The moon and other celestial bodies must be used by all States parties to the treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. " The treaty also prohibited nations from claiming sovereignty over any part of the rest of the solar system.
Moon Express ran into a bureaucratic wall because the treaty states that the activities of non-governmental entities – a clbadification that includes commercial companies – "require authorization and continuous supervision" from the government. (The United States had insisted on the clause, rejecting the Soviet view that space exploration should be limited to governments.)
"We had a planned mission, we had inverted investors, but we did not have a way forward by the end of 2015" , Richards testified during a Senate committee hearing in May. "There was no one who did not want to say yes." There was simply no mechanism to do so. "
The Federal Aviation Administration authorizes the launching of rockets and the re-entry of commercial spacecraft from orbit to ensure the safety of people in the field. communications satellites and the Department of Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, but the United States still does not have a process to authorize or supervise novel ventures, such as a private company landing on the Moon.
Moon Express spent about a year working with the FAA, the State Department and other agencies to prepare jurors what Richards called a "temporary patch," using the existing authority of the FAA to review rocket payloads in order to obtain approval that Moon Express was However, when announcing the decision, the FAA said that the approval was applied to this launch of Moon Express, and even Moon Express could not count on a favorable outcome in the future.
Moon Express has begun talks with the FAA for the second trip to the lunar south pole, and Richards is confident that the company could successfully carry out its first three flights through the current regulatory tiling. But if Congress and the President do not find a better solution, Moon Express, SpaceX, Blue Origin and the rest of the emerging industry could run into more bureaucratic walls and companies could start looking for other places to settle.  Richards remains optimistic. "Each company is moving forward with a certain badumption of risk, but a presumption that the US government comes with frameworks that allow that to happen," he said in October during a visit to the company's headquarters in Florida.
Smoothing Road to Space Rocks
Another space upstart is Planetary Resources, a small company located in an unimportant office park outside of Seattle. His first investors were Larry Page, co-founder of Google, and Charles Simonyi, former chief software architect at Microsoft. The company is also taking advantage of an investment from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
The objective of Planetary Resources is to exploit the asteroids of the solar system. Luxembourg, a small nation with a long history in mining, has wagered € 200m (£ 176m) in this industry that does not exist. That includes € 23 million invested in planetary resources. In return, Luxembourg owns a 10 percent stake in the company, said Etienne Schneider, the country's deputy prime minister.
In April, the crown prince of Luxembourg, his wife and government officials visited the Planetary Resources, donning white dresses, gloves, thin caps and baby blue booties, a distinctly unroyal garb sometimes called a "bunny costume" , to observe closely where the small satellites are joining the company.