At the moment, SpaceX is contracted with NASA to begin transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in the next year or two. A flight around the Moon is certainly a bolt from the blue, though. In September 2016 Musk announced a somewhat grandiose plan to get to Mars in the next decade, but now the Moon appears also to be on the agenda.
In the telecon, Musk highlighted the special relationship SpaceX had with NASA, and said they could not have succeeded without the agency’s help. But this lunar mission will call into question NASA’s own planned flyby of the Moon, using its Orion spacecraft and upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, scheduled for 2019 at the earliest.
“By putting forth the idea that its Dragon spacecraft could essentially fly the same mission as Orion for much, much less than the government, SpaceX is boldly telling the Trump administration that the private sector could get the job done if Orion were axed from the space agency's budget to cut costs,” Eric Berger noted for ArsTechnica.
Musk, for his part, said he thought both missions could go ahead, adding that it didn’t matter who was first; the important thing was the “advancement of space exploration”. He suggested, though, that if NASA wanted to use Dragon 2 for a lunar flyby they would get priority over its private customers.
“In other words: If NASA decides it doesn't need the SLS or Orion, we'll fly the mission for them,” said Berger.
NASA released a short statement yesterday showing support for SpaceX’s endeavors. It said it “commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” adding: “We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.”
That’s not to say Musk’s plan is a done deal. A manned launch in 2018 is ambitious, considering SpaceX is yet to flight test its manned capsule (expected in November this year), let alone fly it with a crew. The first manned mission, a test flight in Earth orbit, is scheduled for May 2018.
There will be a number of hurdles SpaceX must jump through before it can start sending people to the Moon and back, particularly with regards to astronaut safety. It wouldn’t be unwise to expect there will be delays to this lunar flyby mission.
But Musk and SpaceX are masters at drumming up public support. Considering the excitement that already surrounds their comparatively routine launches and landings, if SpaceX can pull off a lunar mission before NASA they’ll be catapulted from hopeful dreamers to perhaps our best bet for exploring the Solar System in the eyes of the world.