Elon Musk is sending tourists beyond the moon. That's a big deal--just not for the reasons you might expect.
SpaceX announced Monday that it plans to send two private citizens on the mission around the moon. The tourists, whose names were not revealed, will fly in an automated ship without an astronaut on board. SpaceX is targeting a launch of late 2018.
The mission is certainly exciting--it will mark the first time humans have traveled that deep into space in 45 years. But it won't exactly explore new frontiers, since it's accomplishing a feat humanity has been capable of since the 1960s.
"It's merely an adventure trip," says Tom Jones, a former astronaut who flew in four space shuttle missions throughout his career with NASA. "It's like jumping out of a balloon at 130,000 feet or summitting Mount Everest. Spectacular view, but no scientific value."
Still, the mission could have huge value for SpaceX, if successful. It will demonstrate that the private company can get cargo beyond the space station, the moon, and into deep space.
That kind of journey could prove SpaceX's worth to companies or organizations--NASA included--that want to get beyond low Earth orbit. "Eventually," Jones says, "[Musk] can deliver cargo, he can deliver rocket fuel, and maybe even habitable modules--privately built modules that could be part of an outpost in lunar orbit, or put together to go to an asteroid. And that might mean SpaceX gets to play a role in man's return to the moon, or an asteroid expedition, or later trips to Mars."
On that last point, Musk has already outlined a specific timeline--he wants SpaceX to go to Mars by 2024--though many have doubted he'll be able to meet such a tight deadline. By setting a goal for the trip around the moon for 2018, Jones thinks that Musk, in typical fashion, is setting an overly ambitious deadline. SpaceX hasn't yet flown the Falcon Heavy rocket or the Dragon 2 capsule that will be used for the mission.
Musk says the journey around the moon won't be a one-off, claiming that in the future, private flights could account for up to 10 or 20 percent of the company's bottom line, according the The Verge. SpaceX isn't saying if it will profit off this initial mission or how much it will cost in total, though Musk did say the cost would be a little more than a crewed mission to the space station, which typically runs around $80 million.
Still, while other companies like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin are planning much of their business around space flights for the super wealthy, SpaceX's model is primarily to serve as a vehicle for scientific missions, satellite launches, and trips to the International Space Station. The company has a contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the station several times per year, so those missions will remain the priority over any tourist flights.
In a statement released Monday, SpaceX said the two passengers approached the company about making the trip. Musk added in a later call with reporters that the ship will be automated and won't have an astronaut on board--only the two space tourists.
With just two people on the mission, less oxygen, supplies, and emergency gear will be needed, thus limiting the total weight of the capsule and likely allowing the company to launch sooner. Russia's spacecraft have been using automated systems for years, while NASA's spacecraft typically rely on the on-board astronauts to perform tasks related to the flight.
During SpaceX's flight, mission control back on Earth will be able to intervene with the on-board flight system, perform overrides, and adjust or update software as needed. The absence of an on-board astronaut could present dangers in cases in which manual operations are necessary. In order to save their lives, the astronauts aboard Apollo 13, for example, had to manually shut down and restart the command module in a specific sequence, and gain access to and activate the lunar module to supply themselves with oxygen--incredibly difficult tasks for anyone but a trained astronaut. "Those were all functions of mission control and the astronauts working together to succeed," Jones says. "Musk will have fine people in mission control, and a well-proven automated system, but it's risky."
The two people flying to the moon, Jones says, will likely undergo emergency training, like how to put out fires or quickly open the escape hatch. They'll also be schooled on everyday tasks like turning lights on and off, making food, and using the toilets. The rest of the details, from navigation to the capsule's interior oxygen levels, will be controlled by computers.
SpaceX hasn't yet said whether it will perform an unmanned pilot test first to ensure it can complete the mission.
After initially targeting 2013 or 2014 for the launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket--the vehicle that the company has designed eventually to go to Mars--SpaceX is now aiming to get it off the ground this year. That rocket will be the second most powerful ever flown, after only the Saturn V used during the Apollo missions.