A surprise announcement by SpaceX on Monday envisions humans traveling beyond low Earth orbit by late 2018.
On November 12, 1968, NASA, worried that a test of a Moon-bound Soviet rocket was imminent, publicly announced an audacious plan to send astronauts around the Moon on Christmas of the same year.
Fast forward almost 50 years later: SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk set the space community abuzz earlier this week, announcing a plan to do the same.
The announcement Monday afternoon states that two, as yet unnamed individuals have approached SpaceX about a possible mission to slingshot around the Moon and return to Earth on a free-return trajectory in late 2018. The two individuals have already paid a significant deposit toward the flight. The exact price tag wasn't specified, but Musk elaborated in a press conference that the total amount would cost more than a seat on Russian Soyuz bound for the International Space Station. The current price of that seat is $58 million.
The announcement posted on the SpaceX website says, “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 plans to conduct health and fitness tests with the applicants and release additional information on just who's going later this year.
A NASA statement also released Monday says, “NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher. 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.”
“SpaceX could not do this without NASA,” Musk said on Twitter Monday, in reply to the space agency's announcement. “Can't express enough appreciation.”
The plan isn't without its skeptics: The mood on Twitter following the statement ranged from excited to pessimistic to frustrated. Many noted the number of delays the promised Falcon Heavy rocket has already faced. Others took issue with millionaires purchasing a place in history ahead of seasoned astronauts. The favorable 2018 launch window for Mars was the original time frame for Dennis Tito's crewed Mars Inspiration flyby mission proposed in 2013.
Some skepticism also stems from recent setbacks for the company. Those setbacks include the loss of the CRS-7 mission shortly after launch in 2015 and an explosion resulting in the loss of the Israeli Amos 6 satellite prior to a static fire test on September 1, 2016.
Yet Elon Musk has a penchant for dreaming big. Last September he announced plans to colonize Mars in the next half century. Most proposed private Mars missions, such as Mars One, feature artistic renditions of SpaceX hardware. SpaceX also recently announced that a plan to land a Red Dragon capsule on Mars is now slipping back one 26-month launch window, to 2020.
Making it to the Moon
Getting a mission around the Moon by the end of next year hinges on SpaceX meeting several key milestones. The Falcon Heavy rocket and crewed Dragon capsule (referred to as “Dragon 2”) have yet to leave the launch pad and head into space. To date, SpaceX has launched nine automated cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station (eight of them successful). These missions, flown under contract with NASA, used the Falcon 9 rocket and an unoccupied Dragon capsule.
SpaceX has also completed several successful booster recoveries of the Falcon 9 stage one rocket. Although none of these has been used again, the company hopes to begin reusing stage one rockets soon. A Falcon Heavy launch would feature three boosters returning to home base simultaneously.
The current time frame put forth in the Monday announcement calls for the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket this summer from the Kennedy Space Center, followed by an uncrewed flight of Dragon 2 to the ISS toward the end of 2017. SpaceX's first crewed flight to the ISS using Dragon 2 is set for the second quarter of 2018.
Next year is a good time for lunar travel in terms of high-energy particles and radiation from the Sun, as we're approaching a solar minimum between sunspot cycles #24 and #25; however, galactic cosmic rays may become more of a problem during periods of low solar activity.
A Place in History
SpaceX's most recent resupply flight, CRS-10, was the first mission to launch from the historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center since the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011. A mission to circle the Moon and return next year would depart from the same launch pad.
Apollo 8's lunar flyby was a very different mission than the one SpaceX is proposing, as it achieved several milestones in preparation for Apollo 11's landing on the Moon. While the 8-day SpaceX voyage might not cover any new ground, it would at least get human space exploration out of low-altitude orbits around Earth, where it has been since 1972.
Seven space tourists have made brief visits to the International Space Station between crew rotations. In the days of the Space Shuttle, the cash-strapped Russians were often eager to fill empty Soyuz seats with deep-pocketed tourists-turned-astronauts. However, traveling to the Moon would be a first for space tourism, and would definitely earn the crew exclusive bragging rights.
Space Race Redux?
This announcement also comes on the heels of NASA's statement that the agency is exploring the possibility of flying crew on the first Space Launch System (SLS) mission, slated for launch at the end of 2019. Like SpaceX's Dragon, NASA's Exploration Mission 1 will also circle the Moon and return. China is already ahead of the game in terms of big rockets that can reach beyond low-Earth orbit, launching its Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang Space Center last year on November 3rd.
These developments give space fans something to cheer about, as we pass the bittersweet milestone on April 5th, 2,098 days since the launch of the final space shuttle mission STS 135 — longer than the gap between the final Apollo mission (The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975) and the first shuttle flight (STS 1 in 1981). Though NASA astronauts have continued to visit the International Space Station, it has been a while since they've departed for space from U.S. soil.
It's great to dream, but it's even better to see rockets on the launch pad. Space fans and pundits may continue to argue over the privatization of space and going to the Moon versus Mars, or crewed versus robotic planetary exploration . . . but ultimately, it's great to have any mission with a firm plan to head somewhere, rather than stay here on Earth.