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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX announces it will send two 'private citizens' around the Moon in 2018

By Phil Plait

[Artwork depicting a Falcon Heavy night launch. Credit: SpaceX]

Yesterday, the private rocket company SpaceX announced that it plans to send two humans in a flight around the Moon in late 2018.

The announcement says that the company was approached by two people -- referred to only as “private citizens” -- who put down a “significant deposit” on a rocket flight. The flight would not land on the Moon, but instead go on a path around the Moon and then return back to Earth, taking about a week total.

The big question is: Can they do it?

The answer to that question is, yes, they can. But a whole lot has to happen between now and then.

First, the capsule has to be tested and crew rated. They’ll be using the Dragon 2, an upgraded version of the Dragon capsule they’ve been flying for a few years now. The D2 is larger, designed to carry humans, and has a lot of new hardware on it. It’s never been flown, but should be tested later this year on an uncrewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It’ll fly on a Falcon 9 rocket for that mission.

[Edited to add (Feb. 28, 2017 at 16:00 UTC): I implied this but should've been more clear here: SpaceX has not yet launched a crewed mission; that is, a flight with humans on board. That is a major, major milestone and one they hope to pass sometime in 2018. Of all of these steps, this may be the most important before this translunar flight can be made.]

The second big piece of this is the rocket. For that they’ll need the Falcon Heavy, a huge booster that’s like three Falcon 9s strapped together. A single Falcon 9 doesn’t have anywhere near the lift capability to send two humans and supplies around the Moon, but the Heavy will have 5 million pounds of thrust; 2/3rds the power of a Saturn V (which had to launch heavier equipment to the Moon) and far more than any other rocket currently in use. It’ll have lift capability to spare.

However, like the capsule, the Falcon Heavy has not yet flown. The hardware has been in production for some time (I saw pieces of it myself when I toured the SpaceX factory in 2015 and again in late 2016), but a full up test of the rocket isn’t planned until later this year, as well.

If I sound cautious here, it’s because I am. SpaceX has done some amazing things, and has even shown a lot of resilience and flexibility that is difficult in big space agencies; they’ve had two Falcon 9 failures but have diagnosed the problems and apparently fixed them rapidly. The successful flight of a Falcon 9 with a Dragon to the ISS a week ago shows they have what it takes to be successful after big setbacks.

But there are issues. The company is behind schedule on many aspects of their launches (due to internal and external factors like NASA funding issues, loss of vehicles, and so on), and it should be stressed that both key technologies (rocket and capsule) haven’t flown yet. Once those are successfully tested, I’ll be much more confident this mission will happen and will happen on time.

Elon Musk and a Dragon 2

The announcement, itself, has few details, which I’m guessing is not an accident. I’m sure they’re waiting until they have more things nailed down before releasing more information. For example, it doesn’t actually specify how many people will be on the mission; at least the two private citizens, but will there be other trained astronauts? In a phone call with reporters, Musk said they’ll be using a fully autonomous Dragon capsule, which won’t need trained pilots. That strikes me as risky, but I’ll need a lot more information before I make up my mind on that. Musk noted there is risk in the flight.

As for science and mission-related activities, none were mentioned (they said they’ll be conducting “health and fitness tests,” but that’s for the citizen astronauts prior to the launch). Musk did say it will go well past the Moon, making at least one close pass before heading back to Earth.

The actual cost wasn’t mentioned, either. On their site, SpaceX says a Heavy launch is $90 million. But that’s just the launch; it’s not clear what the total cost of this mission will be, nor how much the two people paid. In the phone call, Musk said it will cost more than a mission to ISS, so it’ll be in the $300 million range. Whoever these two unnamed space tourists are, they clearly have a lot of liquid cash.

This reminds me a bit of Elon Musk’s grand Mars announcement from 2016; there were few details then, either. But that was more of a splashy attention-grabbing event, while this is clearly more of a “here’s the next big thing we really are going to attempt to do soon” announcement.

Pending further details, I’ll say I like this idea. If it works, it’ll have a huge positive benefit to both SpaceX and space exploration. It’ll put cash in the company’s coffers, which they need; launching rockets is an expensive business (Musk sad they can do a couple of these flights a year, which could supply 10-20% of their annual revenue). The publicity won’t hurt, either.

And I rather like the prospects for public awareness of space exploration here, too. When SpaceX launches a rocket, people pay more attention to the booster landing than they do to the primary mission. That’s not surprising; even after eight successful landings, watching them is still like watching a science fiction movie. It’s amazing.

So, putting two (or more) people on top of such a gigantic rocket and flinging them around the Moon will be something that will catch the attention of the world. Mind you, several countries have announced plans to go to the Moon, as well, but it’s not clear who will do it first and who will land first. Having a private company do it before anyone else does will be quite the feather for Musk’s hat.

The last time any human went to the Moon was in late 1972 for Apollo 17. No one has seen it up close with their own eyes for 45 years. I’m excited about the prospect of this happening again next year. But I’ll mitigate that with the reality of what needs to be done first.

There’s a reason we compare very difficult things to rocket science. This is rocket science, and there’s much work ahead of SpaceX. May the solar wind be at their back.