The US government has set a new precedent - it has given federal permission to the private company Moon Express to plan and prepare a trip to Earth's natural satellite. This is a step that's opening the way for the private sector in the space industry as a whole.
The received certificate has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Moon Express say that they'll be ready to send their robot by the end of 2017 - something that has been seen as overly ambitious and raised a lot of questions.
The company has neither a rocket, nor a spacecraft, at least for the moment. The situation is indeed quite interesting because big companies such as SpaceX already have rockets and spacecraft at their disposal but do not have administrative permission. In reality, Moon Express is the first company to express its willingness to send a craft to the Moon. There are no predetermined rules and regulations for private missions of this sort.
Moon Express is to compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize. The experts have been hard at work developing the different components of their rocket, which is going to be called Rocket Lab Electron. Constructing a rocket of this kind is an extremely hard and slow process. It is for this reason that so many have expressed doubts about Moon Express reaching the moon by 2017.
Thus far, private companies have had permission to send spacecraft only into orbit around Earth, due to the safety measures for Earth's citizens, as well as international treaties concerning spaceflight agreed upon long ago.
Besides Moon Express, there are several other companies competing for Google's prize. Its most serious competitor is SpaceX, which plans a trip to Mars but has still not applied for its spacecraft to be given approval to leave Earth orbit.