Elon Musk is wasting no time. In 2018, his spaceflight agency SpaceX plans to fly people around the moon through the Falcon Heavy rocket and on board the Dragon V2 crew capsule.
The news came from Musk himself, who last Feb. 27 announced that SpaceX had been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. The passengers, the CEO said, had already provided “a significant deposit” for the said moon mission, which was likened to the Apollo mission that brought astronauts to the lunar surface.
But how likely is this urgent moonshot to happen within Musk’s timeframe?
In the second quarter of 2018, the mission will fly the two unnamed passengers, which will undergo health and fitness testing as well as spaceflight training this year. The trip around the moon is anticipated to last one week.
The spacecraft is projected to be launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, the same launch pad deployed by NASA for its Apollo missions. The spacecraft, according to Musk, will be autonomous that no specially trained astronauts will be required on board.
For the deep-space mission, the capsule will potentially be upgraded for improved communications. It is expected to involve a skimming on the lunar surface instead of an actual landing, with the spacecraft traveling a bit into deep space before going back to Earth in its projected 400,000-mile journey.
Feasibility And Success
For experts, plenty of things should go right in order for SpaceX to meet the mission timeline and successfully launch the moonshot.
Wayne Hale, a former manager of NASA’s space shuttle program, said it could be “extraordinarily difficult” and “extraordinarily dangerous” to undertake Musk’s task even with modern space capabilities.
“I think their schedule is so aggressive as to not be believable,” Hale told Space.com, who added that while he wishes them well, he is glad that no taxpayers’ money is involved in the mission.
Both the Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon V2 spacecraft are still in pre-launch: the former has its maiden flight scheduled for the summer, while the latter remains in development. SpaceX has not had the success of launching any manned mission, Hale noted.
The missions to bring astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) that SpaceX inked with NASA, too, involve Falcon 9 and not Falcon Heavy rockets.
For space policy and SpaceX veteran Phil Larson, however, “challenging” does not necessarily translate to “impossible.”
The moonshot getting moved to 2019 would remain historic, and a couple of months’ delay would not drastically alter the magnitude of the mission, Larson explained.
He went further that while Musk has the tendency to set ambitious timeframes, SpaceX has a track record of getting things done, including becoming the first private firm to launch a capsule Earth orbit and return it to the planet in one piece back in 2010.
In several orbital missions, SpaceX also managed to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 in its goal of developing reusable rocket technology.
Just last February, NASA and SpaceX successfully launched cargo toward the ISS, blasting around 5,500 pounds of supplies and research equipment into the space lab. The event was the first commercial launch to be carried out from the historic LC-39A.