SpaceX plans to send humans on lunar orbit mission in 2018
by Ryan Whitwam
Human space exploration has been limited to low-Earth orbit ever since the end of the Apollo program, but SpaceX is looking to change that. Of course, we’ve known that for a while, but a new announcement from CEO Elon Musk pushed the timeline for humanity’s return to the moon up to next year. SpaceX plans to send a crewed Dragon capsule to orbit the moon in late 2018.
SpaceX says the flight will include a crew of two private citizens who have paid a “significant deposit” to charter the mission. They basically hired SpaceX to fly them to the moon. So, they’re very rich people, but their identities are currently unknown. The company plans to begin initial training for the unnamed crew later this year, which will include health assessments and instruction on basic operation of equipment aboard the Dragon 2 (and probably signing a ton of liability waivers). Presumably the capsule will be controlled remotely with the civilian crew only trained on necessary emergency procedures.
The Dragon 2 moon mission will launch on the Falcon Heavy platform. This rocket hasn’t flown yet, but it’s based on the successful Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX stresses that while the Dragon 2 was funded largely by NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program, the Falcon Heavy was developed internally by SpaceX. It was created specifically to send missions to the moon and beyond — it’s two-thirds as powerful as the Saturn V that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon, and has more than double the thrust of the next most powerful launch vehicle currently in operation.
This historic mission is expected to launch (fittingly) from Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral. That’s the same launchpad used for the Apollo program. Before humans board the Dragon, SpaceX still has some testing to do. An unmanned Dragon 2 will be sent up to the ISS later this year, then a crewed mission will be flown in Q2 of 2018 if all goes to plan. With that done, SpaceX believes it will be ready to launch the lunar mission later in 2018.
SpaceX has already developed systems for the Dragon 2 that can protect the crew in the event of an emergency. For example, the abort system can blast the Dragon free of the Falcon 9 in the event the rocket malfunctions. However, there’s very little that can be done if a problem pops up while the capsule is on the dark side of the moon.
That’s a risk some people are willing to take to be a part of history. These two people will be further from Earth than any other humans have ever been, thanks to the nature of the planned orbit. This could be an important step into the wider solar system for humanity.
Originally published at www.extremetech.com on February 28, 2017.