I’ve been a serious fan of the efforts of American companies such as SpaceX who, with their Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket have been ushering in the era of private space exploration. It’s an exciting time for science and it provides some welcome competition in a market which has been wholly owned and operated by governments since Yuri Gagarin first took his Vostok spacecraft for a spin around the planet in 1961. We’ve also manged to bring down some of the costs associated with resupplying the International Space Station through such enterprising activity. But are we ready to have civilians head to the moon?

Our government apparently thinks so, and they’re poised to potentially give the green light to our first return to the lunar surface since before many of you reading this were born. (IB Times)

A little-known space exploration startup could soon get the green light to launch the first private spacecraft on a path to the moon. If U.S. federal officials approve the plan, the company would leave behind the largest regulatory hurdle that stands in its way to sending a 20-pound package to the Earth’s largest satellite.

People familiar with the details of the project told the Wall Street Journal that the decision would establish important legal and diplomatic precedents and would work to ensure that private space exploration companies respect international space treaties. In the future, the deal could pave the way for mining asteroids in space and keeping track of debris.

The company in question, Moon Express, wouldn’t get their “license” to make the attempt until next year and there are a few technical hurdles remaining in addition to having to get all of this paperwork with Uncle Sam squared away. First of all, the rocket they plan to use has never even lifted off the ground, say nothing of flown out of the atmosphere. Also, little is known about the lander and the rover they plan to put on the surface. But they’re apparently doing it in an effort to win the Google Lunar X prize, which could bring them a $20M payday.

In return for all of this effort we would get… pictures from the surface of the moon. That’s nice and all, but we’ve got quite a few of them already. In fact, in order to win the prize, all they really need to do is get a rover on the surface and drive it 500 meters, sending back the HD pictures and video they record.

I get how this would be an important first step to setting up some sort of long term activity on the moon, but it’s a baby step. There’s a long way to go from there to doing any mining or building a massive telescope on the dark side of the moon. The latter has been a dream of scientists for years and could provide the sorts of images of distant worlds which we’ve been waiting for. And, of course, as soon as we do anything that involves putting people up there, be they scientists, construction crews or just tourists, the stakes get a lot higher.

But for the time being we’re just talking about a rocket with a fairly fancy remote controlled vehicle, so.. why not? I say go for it. At least it’s not your tax dollars footing the bill.