Elon Musk is not someone who could be described as timid. The same could be said for his flagship enterprise, SpaceX. That was evidenced today when the company made the surprise announcement that it plans to send two paying commercial astronauts on a trip around the Moon next year, riding in the new Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the Moon late next year,” SpaceX said in an official statement posted to its website. “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.”
The announcement came as a surprise and the agreement with the still unnamed customer conducted in private, so much so that NASA released a statement of their own hours later addressing SpaceX’s announcement:
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” read NASA’s statement. “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.”
Indeed, it seems as if NASA was taken a bit aback by the announcement and did not have prior notice. While expressing support for industry, some observers note that the agency’s response indicates some chagrin that SpaceX is going in an additional direction with Crew Dragon, which NASA is partially funding explicitly for future crew transport to the International Space Station. It would appear NASA is concerned that SpaceX might invest too much effort in the commercial mission and put Commercial Crew contract deadlines at risk.
SpaceX had no official response to NASA’s media release other than to express gratitude for the agency’s support of the private sector.
As currently envisioned, Crew Dragon will lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A, which recently received its baptism by fire for Falcon 9 launches with the successful CRS-10 mission. This is the same launch complex that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins departed on their way to history’s first human presence on the surface of the Moon. Numerous other Apollo crews launched from there as well as Skylab and most space shuttle missions.
If all goes as planned, the two private astronauts will begin training in the coming months and undergo a rigorous program of conditioning and education not unlike NASA and Commercial Crew astronauts. Assuming Falcon Heavy enters service late this summer or in the fall, and if no more unfortunate mishaps or other events happen, the astronauts will blast off late in 2018.
SpaceX’s lunar Dragon mission could be just the third flight for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. An unmanned test mission is planned for later this year on a mission to rendezvous with ISS. Then, next spring, a second test flight with crew will fly. SpaceX did not indicate whether or not there will more crewed missions before the lunar fly-around attempt.
SpcaeX’s full statement is as follows:
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.
NASA’s press release in response to SpaceX’s announcement is:
“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.
“For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.
“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”