Companies Want a Piece of the Moon

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Corporations are interested in partnering with NASA for lunar and other deep-space initiatives, but will want property rights in exchange, a NASA-commissioned report released on Tuesday shows.

The U.S. space agency already is relying on private industry to fly cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth. NASA has station cargo delivery contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion with privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, and with Orbital Sciences Corp.

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NASA has a similar program in place to spur development of privately owned space taxis to shuttle astronauts to and from the station as well. The agency currently is backing development of three competing designs, with the aim of selecting one or two for a test flight within about three years. The contenders are SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp.

NASA should forge similar commercial partnerships for transportation beyond the station, including travel to and around the moon, a NASA-commissioned report by startup Bigelow Aerospace shows.

“Corporations and investors will need what has motivated such players since the beginning of time, property rights,” the report said.

Company president and founder Robert Bigelow told reporters on Tuesday he intends to request the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space flight in the United States, review the controversial issue of lunar property rights.

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A 1967 United Nations treaty governing the exploration and use of outer space provides a framework for international space law, but does not specifically address private property rights.

“Companies and their financial backers must know that they will be able to (1) enjoy the fruits of their labor relative to activities conducted on the moon or other celestial bodies, and (2) own the property that they have surveyed, developed and are realistically able to utilize,” the Bigelow report states.

“Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector (in lunar and deep space exploration) … will ultimately fail,” the report warns.

The 77-page report includes a rundown of launch vehicles, spacecraft and other systems that could support lunar initiatives, including NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion capsule, Bigelow’s expandable habitats and other manufacturers’ hardware.

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NASA, which retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, is developing the new rocket and capsule for a variety of missions beyond the space station. An early test flight, for example, would send astronauts to a small asteroid that will have been robotically re-positioned into a high lunar orbit.

Ultimately, the long-term goal of the U.S. human space program is to send astronauts to Mars.

Bigelow wrote the report under an unpaid partnership agreement with NASA.

Image credit: NASA