A long touted lunar circumnavigation for space tourists is back in the news with reports from Russia that RSC Energia now has 8 possible candidates for the mission, which would take place aboard a specially modified Soyuz.
The story from Sputniknews, actually quotes an interview from another paper Izvestia, which somewhat paradoxically (or not) made headlines last week with the announcement that Russia is considering pulling back from the International Space Station with a reduction in crew complement from 3 to 2.
Once again, the source of the current story is legitimate, in this case RSC Energia’s Director General Vladimir Solntsev who said of the proposal:
“We have a preliminary design for upgrading the Soyuz spacecraft, which was conceived with the possibility of organizing a Moon expedition in mind. The upgraded Soyuz will be able to carry out a short flight to the Moon, which will allow it to circle the Earth’s satellite. We are considering eight potential candidates which are ready to pay for such an expedition. There is a Japanese family among them, for instance…Once we have a critical mass of confirmed applications for a trip around the Moon, we will be able to begin large-scale work.”
The lunar circumnavigation is being marketed by U.S. based Space Adventures, which has previously arranged the flights of seven different space tourists to ISS. As described by the company, the lunar trip would also begin with a flight to ISS and a 10 day acclimation period while a separate propulsion and living module boosted to LEO for rendezvous with the Soyuz in advance of departing for a destination only a select group of American astronauts and Pink Floyd have gone before.
Filmmaker James Cameron, who after all, has already been to the bottom of the ocean, has frequently been cited as one likely participant in a two tourist trip which would still require a qualified pilot for the Soyuz 3rd seat. What is different from previous stories is that rather than simply needing to fill out the second seat to jump start the mission, RSC Energia actually needs some undisclosed total number of confirmed passengers to do the hard engineering work.
The most interesting number however, may be 2023, which is the year of the first crewed launch of NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft on what would be a superficially similar journey, absent the LEO rendezvous. Five years ago, when the Soyuz lunar flight cropped up in the news, I wrote about it in the Space Review article, Bad Moon Rising.
While some of the circumstances have changed, and Falcon Heavy still has not flown, the basic takeaway is the same:
“We are beginning to enter an era that holds great danger to NASA if its planners, and Congress, are not very careful. Quite simply, once what is possible becomes affordable, even to only a few, private operators are likely to move more quickly and creatively than their governmental counterparts.”