Elon Musk, founder, and CEO of SpaceX announced Monday that the company plans to take two paying private citizens on a trip around the moon, tentatively by the end of 2018. The launch vehicle will be the Falcon Heavy rocket while the Dragon crew capsule will host the passengers.
Although NASA commended the announcement, it also reminded SpaceX of its main obligation towards NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and bring astronauts serving at the station back to Earth, specifically the United States.
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” NASA officials wrote in a 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.”
“NASA always has first priority,” Musk said putting NASA worries to rest. “So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority.”
If SpaceX does manage to achieve the private Moon trip in 2018, it would do well to coincide it with the 50th anniversary of NASA’s historic Apollo 8 manned flight to the moon in December 1968.
All that Musk revealed in regards to the identity of the two paying space passengers is that they are known to each other and were “nobody from Hollywood.” He did admit, though, that the tourists had made a substantial deposit for the said trip and would be undergoing “extensive training” before they embark on the first private trip around our natural satellite.
According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to be launched for a test flight by summer this year, has “5 million pounds of liftoff thrust” making it “the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket.” The thrust is two times that of the next largest launch vehicle available today and two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V.
“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,” said the SpaceX statement about the passenger mission.
SpaceX is currently under contract with NASA to carry out an average of four missions to the ISS in a year; three being cargo missions while one will carry crew.
Elon Musk thinks that one or two private passenger missions in a year are foreseeable and estimated that revenue from such trips has the potential to contribute between 10 and 20 percent of the company’s earnings.
The SpaceX and Tesla billionaire also said that after the required communications upgrade, the Dragon crew capsule, being developed for NASA’s manned missions, will be ideal for the passenger program.
The intended launch will, however, require the necessary licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration.
SpaceX, it must be mentioned, is not the only company developing passenger spaceflight services for profit. It joins Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (an offshoot of his UK-based Virgin Group), among others, working toward making private commercial flights to space a reality of the near future.