Google recently announced its sponsorship of the Lunar X Prize, which awards $20 million to the first private firm to land a robotic rover on the moon by the end of 2012. Will these companies need special permission to put something on the moon?
Not exactly. You don't need anyone to sign off on a lunar landing, but you do need a permit to launch anything into space from Earth. Governments oversee private space activity through the framework provided by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which has been signed by 91 nations, including all the major space-faring countries. The treaty restricts the exploration of outer space to peaceful purposes and says it should be performed for the benefit of all nations. Article VI specifically addresses nongovernmental entities in space; it declares nations should "require authorization" and "continuing supervision" of citizens' actions, but it does not stipulate how this might be accomplished.
In the United States, various government agencies follow private activities in outer space, but the bulk of the oversight comes through the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Space Transportation. Any American citizen who wants to launch a rocket or other kind of spacecraft into orbit must obtain authorization from the FAA, as would any foreigner who launches within U.S. territory. The FAA regulates the commercial sector's space activities by requiring parties to obtain launch and re-entry licenses. The office spends up to six months vetting launch plans for potential harm to the public that could occur if something went awry—like falling debris or the formation of a toxic cloud from an explosion. During the review of an application, the FAA also investigates a plan's compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, with deciding factors being whether the pollution from the launch could harm a historic site or the natural environment, or if noise from the launch could be detrimental to surrounding plant and animal life. To get a launch license, a company must prove that it could take financial responsibility if anything went wrong, and that its activities won't threaten foreign policy or national security interests. Additionally, a lunar launch team in the United States would have to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission to use government communications frequencies while in orbit.
The few other countries with emerging commercial space sectors, like Brazil, Israel, and Russia, require permission from a governmental equivalent of the FAA, and the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs maintains a database of international space regulations. In the case of a multinational launch, a team would have to gain authorization from all of the countries involved.
By controlling what and who launches into space, a government can attempt to regulate what happens there. But once you're cleared to launch, you don't need special permission to land on the moon. There aren't any specific guidelines beyond what's in the 1967 treaty as to what happens on the lunar surface.
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Explainer thanks Bretton Alexander of the X Prize Foundation, Bernard H. Foing of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, Sergiy Negoda of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and George Nield of the FAA's Office of Space Transportation. Thanks also to reader Kris Darlington for asking the question.