FAA Moves to Establish Framework for Commercial Lunar Operations

Artist's conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
Artist’s conception of a Bigelow lunar habitat. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

A recent government review of Bigelow Aerospace’s ambitious plans for settlements on the moon did not result in an endorsement of private property rights and ownership on the Moon.

“I want to make clear that the FAA today has responsibility to license launches and reentry and nothing in between,” said George Nield, who is associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA (FAA AST).

Speaking during the FAA’s 18th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Tuesday, Nield said Bigelow requested the FAA to conduct a review of its plans to determine whether there were any regulatory show stoppers before it began detailed work and invested significant amounts of money.

“We are allowed to do something called halo review — called a payload review,” Nield explained. “When we receive that, we take a look at that. We share the proposal with other government agencies, NASA, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, to see if there are concerns or issues that the other agencies might have. In this particular case, it looked like a really good idea, some in the government as a whole is supportive of.

We came to the realization that the federal government probably needs to take a look at its overall regulatory framework,” he added. “Are we living up to the Outer Space Treaty obligations we have in terms of overseeing and authorizing the private sector activities of our citizens?”

In a December letter to Bigelow, the FAA said it could act through its licensing procedures to protect private lunar operations from being interfered with by others.  So, if Bigelow had a base on the moon, other companies licensed by the FAA couldn’t set up operations at the same site without permission.

“We are not talking about property rights. What we are talking about is having the U.S. Government have a framework that provides some regulatory certainty for industry,” Nield  said.

Initial media reports were misinterpreted as indicating the FAA had endorsed property rights on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty prohibits government ownership of the outer space objects such as the moon. It is less clear on private ownership rights.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, praised the government’s actions.

I applaud the recent news from the FAA regarding Bigelow Aerospace review. You are setting the pace and the framework that needs to be established,” Stallmer said. “Don’t believe what the international media is saying. I saw a picture the other day of George lassoing the moon, much like George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’

“A framework needs to be in place, and this is a significant step in the right direction to provide security and predictability in our industry, which is a value in its own right, but a tremendous value for outside investors,” he added. “It is the kind of predictability and approval that investors crave. It is going to benefit the entire industry.”