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Want to Colonize Mars? Get Your Government Paperwork in Order.

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 05, 2016 12:55 PM

Colonizing Mars isn't as easy as Matt Damon makes it look. Before you're abandoned to the empty wasteland of the Red Planet and forced to learn to live off surplus rocket fuel and potatoes, you've got to get through the federal government.

And getting government approval to go beyond the Earth's orbit is no simple task, as one company learned recently. Moon Express recently became the first government-approved private mission to a celestial body, and they only wanted to go to the a few hundred thousand miles beyond the stratosphere. Before you boldly go where only government astronauts have gone before, you apparently need to clear a few legal hurdles.

The Last Frontier Has a Regulatory Scheme

"The moon is nothing but another continent, from our perspective," says Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain. (Scientifically speaking, this is not correct, but we get the metaphor.) Moon Express wants to mine the moon for minerals, and two days ago they were approved to become the first private company to land on the moon. If they make it, they'd be the fourth organization to land on the moon, after the United States, Soviet, and Chinese governments.

But before they can launch their spaceships, they needed the government's go-ahead. Under international treaties, outer space is an international commons, the "province of all mankind," and therefore outside the jurisdiction of one single nation. But, the "Outer Space Treaty," which designated space as commons, also requires countries to "authorize and continuously supervise" space missions, according to a recent article by Ars Technica.

In the U.S., that job is handled by the FAA, when it comes to private, commercial missions. Moon Express first applied to head to the stars (okay, the moon) in April, 2015. The process was "at times Byzantine," requiring review by the whole alphabet soup of federal regulatory agencies: the FAA, NASA, State Department, DoD, FCC, NOAA, and White House. But a two year turn around doesn't sound too bad, considering the kind of delay even simple government projects can experience. (The monument to Martin Luther King on the National Mall, for example, took more than two decades to plan, approve, and construct.)

Everyone Onboard

Moon Express seemed to have the government on its side, however. "Everyone wanted to find a way to make this happen," co-founder Bob Richards told Ars. "They felt like the answer had to be 'yes,' but we had to create the neural pathways that didn't exist before." ("Creating neural pathways" is nerd for convincing people.)

If Moon Express can make it to the moon expressly before December, 2017, they could win $20 million from Google, whose Google Lunar X Prize seeks to spur renewed exploration of space.

And their outing could help set regulatory precedence for private space exploration. Sixteen teams are currently competing in Google's competition, trying to send spacecraft to the Moon. Other groups, like SpaceX's Red Dragon team, are looking farther from Earth and planning missions to Mars.

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