The Extraordinary SpaceX Mission

Falcon Heavy Visualization, Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX recently announced they are launching two people to slingshot around The Moon at the end of 2018. What is particularly special about this, is that this is not being paid for by NASA. For the first time, a manned deep-space mission is being paid for by two citizens, and perhaps more importantly, it isn’t a government organization that is taking the money, it is a private entity which is hoping to turn a profit on space tourism.

This is very different from the Apollo missions. Don’t get me wrong, the Space Race and Apollo missions were incredible, in my opinion the entire era/race was the pinnacle of mankind’s accomplishments, setting a record pace that may never be matched again. But the problem was that the Apollo missions were not sustainable. The only reason they were funded was because of cold war fears. It had very little to do with the exploration of space, and in fact when the cold war came to an end, space funding dropped significantly.

This mission, however, is being driven by tourism and exploration. They are funding this because they want to go to this place. It is not driven by military or political motivations. Honestly, if you told me NASA was going to Mars with people, and in the same year SpaceX was launching people to The Moon, I would be equally as excited about both. This mission is that important for the future of manned spaceflight. Seriously take a look at how far they have to go in this image.

It is more impressive than you think

It is likely this mission will only slingshot (a partial orbit) around The Moon, so it is not even equivalent to Apollo 8 of 1968. They will only be the 25th and 26th people to visit the general vicinity of The Moon, and this will not be that historic on paper. But keep in mind this is the stepping stone for a private company to lead in space. For private people to fund space. To use space for profit and curiosity rather than war and politics.

From a financial perspective, space tourism needs someone to break the ice, it was never really considered feasible until people like Richard Branson and Elon Musk were able to get competitive on pricing and now sub-orbital could get as low as $250,000 from Virgin Galactic and a trip to The Moon can cost what Russia is charging just to send people into orbit, around $80 million. SpaceX has also substantially driven down rocket prices, now their basic (single-core) falcon rocket is around $60 million, compared with the Space Shuttle $1.5 billion*. There have been a few private citizens that have flown in space, but this is the first time private citizens will fly on a private company's rocket to another world. How can this not possibly be exciting?

This mission is not without concerns, however. SpaceX has yet to launch their Falcon Heavy, and the first unmanned demo flight has been delayed multiple times, amounting to two years of delays from Q3 2015 to the now planned Q3 2017. I have strong doubts that will happen based on their prior history, but I can remain hopeful.

SpaceX must also overcome challenges associated with manned spaceflight. While they have had a capsule/module for a long time to use, and they have tested some key systems like the launch abort system, they still need to gain experience with a manned mission or two to the ISS and some test flights, as they have not yet flown people in space. They are going to need to make this progress soon, or else there is no way they can keep this tight deadline.

I can only hope that while there may be some setbacks, they continue forward and get this mission going. SpaceX is always innovating, they are always taking risks, and as a result, those risks come with setbacks and deadline delays, but for the first time in decades, the space industry is moving forward, and for that I am hugely thankful. They have already landed many of their core stages, which is still astonishing to me, and they plan to make the Falcon Heavy mostly recoverable which will further drive costs down. Seriously, this is one of the coolest things I have seen:

*This number comes from dividing the Shuttle program cost ($196 billion in 2011 dollars) by the number of Shuttle launches (135). If you do not include staff/buildings/overhead it is more like $500 million, but for the sake of a commercial company comparison, where they must pay for their buildings, staff and other costs, I think this is a fair way to calculate the price.

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