SpaceX Announces Moon Mission in 2018

SpaceX Falcon Heavy Concept

Recently, SpaceX announced that it will be sending two private citizens on a trip around the moon in late 2018. If you know anything about how spaceflight works, you know this is ambitious…very ambitious. The last time humans went the moon was in 1972 at the end of the Apollo era, but as we’ve seen with SpaceX’s rapid pace of progress, Elon Musk might actually be able to pull it off. Although Mars has been touted as the next frontier to be explored by humans, the moon still remains an attractive and attainable mission.

According to the release, the two private citizens, who as of now remain anonymous, have put down a significant deposit for the mission. Moon missions are not cheap, meaning these people are going to be middle-aged billionaires some sort of advanced engineering or aviation background. That’s a small pool of people, but I won’t speculate just yet. Aside from the technical difficulty of pulling something like this off in a little less than two years, its important to look at how this mission will fit into the broader commercial space industry landscape. NASA’s current mission is to enable the private space industry to assume operations in low earth orbit, while it moves on to deep-space exploration. For SpaceX to announce a mission to the moon is interesting in a few ways. First, NASA’s footed the bill for most of the development of the Dragon 2 capsule, which would be utilized for the mission. Second, SpaceX owes not only owes NASA more cargo missions to the ISS, but also a crewed mission on Dragon 2 in May 2018. Although I have no doubt SpaceX will be able to deliver on the future cargo and crewed missions for NASA, it does raise a few eyebrows given the intense amount of preparation that goes into a moon mission.

SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule docked to the ISS

NASA’s response to SpaceX’s plan remains supportive, but highlights their contractual obligations and aspirations to venture into deep-space:

“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...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.”

NASA’s framework for the journey to mars.

With the Trump Administration’s plan for NASA still undefined, it is hard to say whether NASA will continue along its current trajectory of sending humans to mars or if it will begin to focus on the moon in an independent or joint capacity with the commercial space industry. What is known is that, private companies are frothing at the mouth to reach beyond low earth orbit. Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin as well as Robert Bigelow with Bigelow Aerospace have both announced intent to work with the Trump Administration to go back to the moon. According to Eric Berger from Ars Technica, it’s likely that the Trump Administration won’t provide any direction for the spaceflight community until Mike Pence reconstitutes the National Space Council, likely in late Spring. Nonetheless, this is all exciting, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.

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