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Private Space

Prepares for Lift-Off

The space shuttle Atlantis hurtles into space on mission STS-129 to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

The space shuttle Atlantis hurtles into space on mission STS-129 to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

The news signals a new era in space exploration. This summer, two commercial space initiatives were granted first-ever U.S. government approval. 

The news drew enthusiastic praise from Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eliot Pulham in Colorado Springs. “A major milestone has been achieved here for commercial space activities,” he said shortly after approvals were announced in August.

The actions authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) included the issue of a license to Virgin Galactic for its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane. The approval allows Virgin Galactic to resume flight tests, from Mojave Air & Space Port, Calif., leading toward commercial suborbital space flights.

A few weeks later, government approval also cleared the way for California-based Moon Express to send a spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit and to land on the moon by 2017. To date, no commercial company has conducted a mission beyond Earth’s orbit. Space travel and exploration has long been solely the territory of government space programs.

While the licensing of SpaceShipTwo was an anticipated event, the authorization of the Moon Express flight to the lunar surface is considered a significant commercial space breakthrough. The authorization enables Moon Express to embark on a maiden flight of its robotic spacecraft to the Moon's surface as early as 2017, a step toward unlocking the immense potential of the Moon's valuable resources. 

“This is not only a milestone, but really a threshold for the entire commercial space industry," Moon Express co-founder and CEO Bob Richards said in an interview with Space.com. 

Pulham, whose Colorado Springs-based organization hosts the annual Space Symposium at The Broadmoor, sees a bright future ahead for his industry.

“We applaud Moon Express and the Federal Government for this historic ruling to allow private enterprise to travel beyond Earth's orbit and more fully open a new era of commercial exploration and discovery. We are also delighted to see the doors opened for Virgin Galactic’s return to flight.”

 Both approvals came only after in-depth consultations with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies. While proposed congressional legislation would enable private sector companies to engage in deep space missions, broader challenges remain. Commercial operators still must meet international requirements of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). 

“Space is a different kind of frontier now,” Pulham explains. “The administration is to be congratulated for providing pathways to success for U.S. commercial space companies, while also embracing international norms for the peaceful use of outer space.”