© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
The moon is seen behind the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Who Will Regulate the Moon? Lobbyists and the Government Are Racing to Figure It Out.

Billions of dollars and sprawling geopolitical interests are at stake as companies race to get to the moon.

An unusual visitor recently pulled into the Department of Transportation’s driveway across the street from the National Mall: a gleaming, 11-foot-tall four-wheeler named FLEX that, if all goes to plan, will soon be carting goods around the moon.

FLEX had to keep it moving: The rover also stopped at the Department of Commerce, where officials took turns posing for photos and riding the rover, a prototype developed by the space travel company Astrolab. FLEX’s visit was a harbinger of what’s to come: As commercial business on the moon gets close to becoming reality, lobbyists and policymakers are jockeying over who in government will oversee the new space economy and how they’ll do it.

“People like me are saying, ‘How do we make sure this thing we’re going to send to space is ready to go to space?’” said Caryn Schenewerk, a space policy consultant who has worked on Capitol Hill and at the White House. “It shouldn’t, in my opinion, be that we can solve the technical hard problems of getting to space, but we can’t solve the problem of our regulations being so burdensome that we can’t get into space.”

The idea of a moon economy complete with roads, food and sources of power can sound far-fetched. But companies are now planning for the realities of life in space, and dozens of startups are inking contracts to send goods to the moon, determined to have people going there by late 2026.

“Everybody is understanding there is this emerging economy, and things are happening really fast, and they need to pay attention,” said John Taylor, a communications consultant and former SpaceX employee. For lobbyists and consultants like Taylor, business is booming as the new commercial space sector takes shape.

Tens of billions of dollars in government funds and key geopolitical interests are at stake. The United States has tapped private industry to establish a presence on the moon — crucially, it wants to accomplish this before China, which has a stated goal of returning to the moon by the end of the decade. China launched a rocket this month to collect samples from the moon’s far side, prompting NASA administrator Bill Nelson to warn once again that “we are in a race” against the country’s secretive space program, which could involve building a lunar military base.

The U.S. government views building a strong American lunar presence as the answer, though it’s not yet clear how successful — or expensive — that will be. And questions surrounding how to do business on the moon abound.

There are some basic ground rules. The United States is responsible for behaving according to international space treaties, which spell out liability requirements and procedures for rescue-and-return if, say, an astronaut gets lost. Right now the government sets rules for rocket launches and returns. The government also regulates satellites, which could collide with each other in orbit.

But many specifics for how business will operate are still vague: A company hoping to run a rover — or, in the future, build a road or harvest minerals — needs a license that acts as the government’s assurance that the company will comply with international law (and will have the U.S. government’s support should something go awry). But there is not a clear system for granting such licenses, what the process will involve or exactly what will happen when something inevitably goes wrong. Many different government agencies have an interest in what happens on the moon, from the State Department, which is interested in diplomacy, to the Federal Communications Commission, which allocates spectrum use for communications.

Space startups are beginning to clamor for certainty; they will need to budget both time and money and hire government liaisons to get moon projects cleared.

The first step is deciding who is in charge. Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee last fall passed a bill out of committee that would make the Department of Commerce the chief regulator. But the day before the committee marked up that bill, the Biden administration floated its own plan to split the job between two departments, Commerce and Transportation. Other proposals are quietly circulating in the Senate, according to people who have seen them.

“The Biden administration needs to streamline [and] get these agencies aligned together: The FCC, Commerce and NASA to an extent, and the Department of Defense,” said one lobbyist with clients in the space sector. “They don’t seem like they know who does what, and how it shakes out, and they don’t have the talent that knows how to regulate. They’re all green.”

To industry, the decision could be highly consequential. Some companies believe Commerce has a good track record from its work with satellites and has tried to listen to industry and minimize bureaucracy, leading some companies to push for Commerce to take a larger role.

The House committee’s legislation is “clear and concise,” Franklin Chang Díaz, CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, wrote in a January letter. “Consistent government support sends a strong message to the private markets that stimulate competition, innovation, and investment.”

Biden’s plan would also put the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently licenses rocket launches, in the driver’s seat, presumably because of the agency’s history regulating airlines and rocket launches. Critics say the FAA’s work on launches has been messy and drawn out.

The prospect of business on the moon right now can feel like a libertarian paradise for the many companies hoping to set up operations there.

Because the moon is so harsh and barren, there aren’t many rules preserving its environment, aside from a deceptively simple mandate to not disturb others by, say, kicking up too much moon dust. (There are stricter rules to prevent humans from contaminating Mars, which appears more hospitable to life.)

There are no property rights on the moon; anyone is theoretically allowed to build things or extract resources. Though American companies that make it to the moon can’t lay claim to a promising-looking crater, they will be free to set up camp and mine resources under U.S. policy.

The government hopes private companies will mine water, which could be made into rocket fuel and then used to power trips to Mars. Another startup is planning to mine an element called helium-3, which is abundant on the moon’s surface but scarce on Earth. Helium-3 is useful in certain industries, like medical imaging, and could potentially be used in the future as a source of nuclear energy that does not generate waste.

“My personal view is, it’s up to fast-moving companies to go do it,” said Kirby Carlisle, CEO of Argo Space, which plans to mine water on the moon. “Just go do it first, and then let the government catch up. And do what you can along the way to proactively make it a friendly environment when you do get there.”

Argo Space has another regulatory challenge: getting materials to the moon in the first place. Right now, restrictions make it difficult to shuttle materials from Earth’s orbit to the moon with companies that aren’t based in the United States.

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For individual businesses and America at large, the advantage will go toward whoever can be there and set the rules first.

“Rules are made by people who show up, not people who stay behind. If you look at rules and behavior, they’re going to be driven by people who are there,” said Scott Pace, who has worked in space policy at NASA, Commerce and the White House.

“The Chinese have a right to be in space — space is the province of all mankind,” Pace added. “I just want to be there too, with my friends.”

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS.