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.”

  • Matt

    Hello, can me somebody tell why Federal Aviation Administration
    cares about Moon? It is really necessary to go to Mars to leave Earth based bureaucrats and governments without influence? As Dr. Zubrin suggesting that regarding the Moon, “the cops are too close!”

  • Paul451

    If you are launching from the US, whether it’s to the moon, Mars or Alpha Centauri, the OST requires the US to take responsibility for your actions. The FAA has been given the task of regulating commercial launches, and hence everything that follows.

  • Matt

    Thanks for explanation. My proposal let us launch from international waters (similar to Sealaunch) to avoid governmental influence.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That only works if you are not a U.S. citizen or a U.S. firm. Otherwise the OST makes the U.S. responsible for you.

    Also Sealaunch is licensed by the FAA AST.

  • windbourne

    ITAR will block that quickly for any american operation

  • Hug Doug

    according to the OST, the country of origin of the rocket still has jurisdiction over its launch into space. so it doesn’t matter where you launch from.

  • Stuart

    Have we a timescale for settlement of the Moon then?

  • DavidR2015

    I don’t think that planning is that advanced yet. But put it this way, once FH is flying expect interest in the moon to surge, because FH will shift lunar pricing significantly.

  • Matt

    If “OST” is a US governmental agency then it shall be only valid for US citizens/companies.

  • Matt

    Does it have something to do that Sea-Launch’s harbor is located in USA (California) that also Sea-Launch is licensed by the FAA AST? Is there a different situation if Sea-Launch moves to Brasilia?

  • Hug Doug

    no, OST means Outer Space Treaty. it’s an international treaty signed by nearly every nation in the world.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty#Responsibility_for_activities_in_space

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, and it was also incorporated as a U.S. corporation even though it had international partners owning stock. Just like VG, it is incorporated in the U.S. so its a U.S. for purposes of the OST and regulation.

  • Matt

    I thought that was meant. 🙂

    “The Office of the Secretary (OST) oversees the formulation of national
    transportation policy and promotes intermodal transportation …”

    http://www.dot.gov/office-of-secretary

  • ThomasLMatula

    Although there are some interesting exceptions that could prove useful if “big” finance gets involved, just as nations like the Cayman Islands serve a similar function for global investing.

  • JimNobles

    Also, Bigelow has been wanting the government to get into the act for a while now. He wants some kind of legal framework and some minimal initial legal protections for his planned activities on the moon. I doubt this is entirely what he wants but I guess it’s better than nothing from his point of view.