SpaceX has revealed that it plans to send two people on a flight around the Moon in the second half of 2018, a bold mission in their upcoming human spaceflight program.
The company made the surprising announcement yesterday, saying the two people were private individuals who knew each other and had already paid a “significant deposit” for the Moon mission. The identity of the two people has not been revealed, but CEO Elon Musk noted in a teleconference that “it’s nobody from Hollywood”.
The two passengers will fly past the lunar surface, before swinging back around and returning to Earth. There will be no lunar landing, but the mission will be the first time since 1972 that humans have left Earth orbit and set eyes upon the Moon up close. The cost of the tickets was said to be similar to a trip to the ISS, which is about $35 million each.
“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” SpaceX said in a statement.
The flight will take place aboard SpaceX’s upcoming Dragon 2 vehicle, an upgraded version of its current cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft that will be capable of taking humans to and from space. It will be launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket, expected to fly for the first time in the summer of this year, which will be the most powerful rocket in operation.
In the statement, SpaceX added that these two people would travel “faster and further into the Solar System than any before them,” suggesting the travel time to the Moon will be less than the three days needed for the Apollo missions. Currently, the record for the furthest humans from Earth was set by Apollo 13 in 1970, a distance of 400,171 km (248,655 miles).
The launch will take place from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral, the historic pad once used for the Apollo missions that SpaceX now has a lease to use. They launched from the pad for the first time earlier this month.
Training for the two people will begin this year, and provided they pass health and fitness tests they will be cleared to fly. Whether SpaceX will get approval for a lunar mission so soon from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who must give permission for American launches, remains to be seen.
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.