Elon Musk and his company SpaceX are aiming to do something that NASA hasn’t done in the last 45 years: send humans on a trip around the moon. 1972’s Apollo 17 was the final moon mission for NASA, but in late 2018, SpaceX hopes to be the first private space industry company to successfully (and safely) send humans to the moon and back. The mission was announced earlier today on SpaceX’s website where it was revealed that two private individuals (and amateur astronauts) had already plunked down a substantial bit of moon money for the trip. The approximately week-long journey would take a long loop around the moon, out to 400,000 miles from Earth. But is the news just a bit of on-brand marketing or does this moonshot really have a chance of happening?
The folks over at ArsTechnica have some thoughts on that front. SpaceX is a business with designs on transporting humans to Mars, so a successful moon orbit will provide a strong proof of concept for current (and future) shareholders. The amount of the deposit made by the unnamed pair of hopeful astronauts was not divulged, but SpaceX’s previous business model aimed to use the funds from privatized space flights toward furthering their other research and development. The trip would also put the company’s existing spacecraft, like the mostly NASA-funded Dragon 2, which takes priority for shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station, and in-development vehicles, like the Falcon Heavy, funded internally and preparing for its first test launch this summer, to good use. That test flights for both vehicles will determine just how reasonable a late 2018 moonshot actually is.
Speaking of NASA, not only have they considered purchasing launch seats on Russian Soyuz rockets in 2019 as a back-up plan, they very recently began a study of adding crew to their first flight of the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft; that study should be completed by early spring. The planned Exploration Mission-1 would have a similar trajectory to SpaceX’s moon orbit trip.
So as NASA has allowed private industry to jump into low-Earth orbit while opting to focus on deep space exploration, some competition still exists in the areas closer to home. Technical hurdles certainly abound for SpaceX and other private companies, so some skepticism is healthy at the moment. Legal hurdles also loom, since SpaceX would need the U.S. government, and specifically the Federal Aviation Administration, to grant the company a license to carry out the mission. The risk, potential public relations nightmare, and tight time frame are all working against Musk at the moment. But so far it has seemed like Musk has the right stuff.
Would you like to book a trip around the moon with SpaceX in the future? (Duh, yes.) Be sure to let us know in the comments!