When Donald J. Trump won the U.S. Presidency, it was a pretty fair bet that America’s space program would soon be setting its sights on the Moon once again. What few saw coming however, was the bombshell that SpaceX dropped on Monday, as the company announced that it is in the advanced stages of mounting a privately funded lunar flyby for two paying tourists which could take place as soon as next year.
The journey, which would take place in a mostly automated crew-rated Dragon spacecraft launched aboard a Falcon Heavy, comes as something of shock considering the fact that Elon Musk’s company, perpetually focused on Mars, has thus far shown scant interest in lunar excursions, and even less on space tourism for its own sake. That the announcement comes only a few weeks after NASA suggested that it is considering throwing convention to the wind and launching two of its own astronauts on a similar mission aboard Orion for the Space Launch System’s maiden flight, raises the obvious question of who is reacting to whom.
And what about Russia?
While the names of the two would-be citizen explorers have not been released, do not be surprised if James Cameron is one of them. Space Adventures, the American company which has arranged tourism flights to the International Space Station aboard Russia’s Soyuz, has for several years been promoting a lunar flyby based around a specially modified version of that venerable spacecraft, with Cameron’s name surfacing again and again.
See Related: Russia Still Wants to Send Tourists Around the Moon
Given Russia’s ongoing space adventures of the troublesome sort, it is not difficult to imagine that even with two Falcon 9 mishaps in the rear-view mirror, and a very limited flight history for Falcon Heavy before launch day, many would sooner risk their neck on spacecraft which will have NASA’s stamp of approval, at least for LEO missions, than on a somewhat kludged together lunar Soyuz boosted from LEO by an occasionally erratic upper stage.
Full SpaceX Announcement
“We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. 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. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.
Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding. Falcon Heavy is due to launch its first test flight this summer and, once successful, will be the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V and more than double the thrust of the next largest launch vehicle currently flying.
Later this year, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, we will launch our Crew Dragon (Dragon Version 2) spacecraft to the International Space Station. This first demonstration mission will be in automatic mode, without people on board. A subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly in the second quarter of 2018. SpaceX is currently contracted to perform an average of four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three carrying cargo and one carrying crew. By also flying privately crewed missions, which NASA has encouraged, long-term costs to the government decline and more flight reliability history is gained, benefiting both government and private missions.
Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth. Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.
Designed from the beginning to carry humans, the Dragon spacecraft already has a long flight heritage. These missions will build upon that heritage, extending it to deep space mission operations, an important milestone as we work towards our ultimate goal of transporting humans to Mars.”