Rocket Lab's mission to send a rocket to the moon is a step closer to reality thanks to the US government giving permission for a private company to fly a spaceship beyond Earth's orbit and land on the moon.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave clearance Wednesday to Moon Express to land a washing machine-sized vehicle on the moon that would take hops across the lunar surface using engine firings instead of roving on wheels.

This is a milestone for Rocket Lab and the Florida-based company.

"Why crawl when you can fly," said Moon Express CEO Bob Richards. He called the company's planned lunar ship a "single-stage hot rod of space."

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Moon Express plans to launch late next year on a Rocket Lab rocket that will take off from Mahia in Hawke's Bay.

Rocket Lab signed the deal with Moon Express in October 2015. Under the launch services contract, Rocket Lab will use its Electron rocket system to launch three missions of Moon Express' MX-1 lunar lander spacecraft.

Two launches of MX-1 were manifested with Rocket Lab for 2017, with the third to be scheduled at a later date.

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.

Richards said the first flight has five customers, including a company that is selling the opportunity to take people's ashes to the moon.

However, Richards said his firm hasn't finished building the lander and hopes to unveil a new design in September, which he said is "about the size of R2-D2" from Star Wars and will be propelled by environmentally friendly hydrogen peroxide.

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

- with AP