Illustration of exploration vehicle on moon's surface (© AP Images)
An illustration of the landing vehicle that Moon Express of Florida plans to land on the moon (© AP Images)

The U.S. government for the first time has given permission to a private company to fly a spaceship beyond Earth’s orbit and land on the moon.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave clearance August 3 to Moon Express to land a washing machine–sized vehicle on the moon that would hop across the lunar surface by firing its engine instead of roving on wheels.

“Why crawl when you can fly?” said Moon Express chief executive Bob Richards.

Moon Express, based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, plans to launch in late 2017 out of New Zealand, on a rocket from startup Rocket Lab, Richards said. The $10 million flight is the first of many planned missions, where they hope to develop lunar resources like platinum and sell moon dust and rocks, he said.

Getting the OK — not technically a license, but a determination that it would do no harm and the company can go ahead — “is a milestone, and it is not implausible that they will succeed,” said retired space-policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University.

The company is competing with several other groups for the Google Lunar XPrize. The $20 million prize will go to the first private firm to get a lander to the moon that can move around a little.

The governments of the U.S., China and the former Soviet Union have landed rovers on the moon, with the Chinese Jade Rabbit rover just being retired. No human has visited the moon since 1972.