On February 27, SpaceX made the shocking announcement that it will send two people around the Moon in late 2018. If the mission occurs on schedule, SpaceX will likely be the first private company to send humans out of Earth orbit. The only crewed missions in history that have left Earth orbit were the Apollo missions.
We’ve known for awhile that Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, plans to send humans to Mars, and eventually establish a colony there. It makes sense that he would set his sights on the Moon first. There’s a lot we don’t know about this trip yet—but here's what we do know so far.
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The Passengers Will Be Private Citizens
SpaceX will fly private citizens, who’ve already paid a large deposit for the mission, around the Moon (though they will not land on it). This likely means no scientific research will be conducted during the mission. It will be a purely commercial venture, though the mission will provide a great jumping off point for a later Mars mission. We don’t know how much either of these space tourists paid as a deposit, though Musk indicated that the total cost of the flight per tourist was similar to what NASA pays for one seat on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station (ISS)—roughly $80 million.
NASA Has a Chance to Be on the Flight
Musk made it clear that these two tourists paid handsomely for the privilege of being on this flight. However, SpaceX seems open to flying NASA astronauts if the agency is willing to pay for the seats, presumably bumping the private citizens to a later flight. NASA has yet to comment on the possibility, saying only that it supports SpaceX’s ambitions to aim higher than low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station is.
NASA also mentioned that it’s through their own investment SpaceX is able to take this leap—which is absolutely true. In fact, SpaceX said as much in their own announcement. SpaceX is a commercial crew partner for NASA. This means that NASA pays the company to ferry supplies—and eventually astronauts—to and from the International Space Station. Without this support, SpaceX would likely not have even survived as a company, much less have a chance at fulfilling lofty goals like missions to the Moon.
In their statement, NASA said it "commends its industry partners for reaching higher," and that the agency 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 Will Use Their New Rocket
The rocket that SpaceX currently flies—the well-tested Falcon 9—won't be sufficient to carry humans on a circumlunar mission. To accomplish that, they’ll have to turn to the Falcon Heavy, a new rocket that’s still in development. There will certainly be tests of both the capsule and the Falcon Heavy before this flight, and the Falcon Heavy is scheduled for its first test this summer. When it flies, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket available—until NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket system is completed.
SpaceX Plans to Launch a Crewed Mission to the ISS First
SpaceX plans to launch an unmanned mission to the International Space Station in late 2017 to test its crew capsule, the Crew Dragon. Assuming that all goes well, SpaceX plans to launch a manned crew capsule sometime in mid-2018, before the circumlunar flight. At minimum, then, the Moon mission will be the third flight of the Crew Dragon, and the second manned flight.
This Mission Will Occur During the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of the Moon Landing
If everything sticks to schedule, or even if the delays are relatively minor, this mission will happen during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the first Moon landing on July 20, 1969. Not only that, but it will launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the historic site from which all Apollo missions launched.
It will be interesting to see whether SpaceX can stick to its goals, and whether NASA takes Musk up on the offer to fly astronauts, rather than private citizens, around the Moon. Currently, the earliest NASA will likely fly astronauts is 2019. NASA is considering launching a crew around the Moon on the first flight integrating NASA's SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, although even this may be too lofty of a goal to reach.
The one thing we can be certain of? It's a very exciting time to be a fan of spaceflight.
Featured photo: SpaceX Falcon9 rocket blasts off Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center, via Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/TNS / Getty Images. Image of Elon Musk via JD Lasica / Flickr (CC); Falcon 9 image via NASA Johnson / Flickr (CC); SpaceX Dragon image via NASA Johnson / Flickr (CC)