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Falcon Heavy/Dragon launch
SpaceX’s proposal calls for the launch of a crewed Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy rocket, sending two people on a week-long trip around the Moon. (credit: Spacex)

Lunar cause and effect

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The announcement turned out to be a bigger deal than spacesuits.

As many people were settling in to watch the Academy Awards on the evening of February 26, Elon Musk tweeted, “SpaceX announcement tomorrow at 1pm PST.” Neither he nor the company offered additional details, thus cranking the speculation machine into overdrive. The most likely announcement, people argued (based on, some claimed, informed sources) was that SpaceX would reveal the pressure suits astronauts would wear on its crewed Dragon missions. That seemed logical: Boeing, after all, had done a similar announcement just a few weeks earlier.

“I think this should be a really exciting mission that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again,” Musk said.

So much for those sources. When Musk did make the announcement Monday afternoon, he offered something much bigger, and far more surprising, than spacesuits. Instead, SpaceX announced it was planning a commercial human mission around the Moon, flying two people on a Dragon 2 spacecraft launching on a Falcon Heavy as soon as late 2018.

Given SpaceX’s, and Musk’s, visions of human missions to Mars, this interest in a lunar mission is the surest sign yet that the Moon is back in vogue as a destination for humans, be it commercial or government missions. What remains to be seen, though, is whether such initiatives are the result of changes in US government policy, or instead efforts to make changes in policy that go beyond simply a choice in destinations.

“A really exciting mission”

Musk, in a conference call with reporters shortly before the public announcement, said SpaceX had been approached by two private individuals about doing a flight around the Moon. Concepts for such missions have been discussed for more than a decade by companies like Space Adventures, but had never gotten off the ground.

“They’re very serious about it,” Musk said of the customers, who he declined to name other than saying the two knew each other and were not Hollywood celebrities. “I think this should be a really exciting mission that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again.”

The plan, as laid out by Musk, involves launching the two people on a Dragon 2—aka Crew Dragon—spacecraft, sent towards the Moon by a Falcon Heavy rocket. The roughly week-long mission, he said, would have the Dragon spacecraft “skim” the surface the Moon and fly out significantly farther, out to perhaps more than 600,000 kilometers from the Earth, before returning to Earth.

The mission would leverage the Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy vehicles already under development, which Musk said will have flown several times, including crewed Dragon missions to the International Space Station, prior to this mission. The most significant change would involve upgrades to the Dragon’s radios to support deep-space communications.

“So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority. NASA is our first priority in missions like this,” Musk said.

The two paying customers would undertake the mission without a crewmember to “fly” the spacecraft. “The system will be able of operating autonomously throughout the entire flight,” Musk said. The two people will get training in emergency procedures, but otherwise will have little to do with the spacecraft’s operations. Does that then make the two people basically passengers, one reporter asked. “Yes,” Musk replied.

Musk declined to state how much the two people are paying for the flight. “It would be comparable to, maybe a little more than, what the cost of a crewed mission to the space station would be,” he said. The high end of costs for ISS flights, based on a NASA contract with Roscosmos for Soyuz seats to the station in 2018, is a little more than $80 million per person.

Such a mission, he argued, would not be a one-off trip. “I think it could be a significant driver of revenue,” he said. “I think there’s likely a market for at least one or two of these per year.”

Trump’s plans, or trumped plans?

SpaceX’s announcement came less than two weeks after NASA announced it was studying whether it could put people on the first launch of the Space Launch System, sending astronauts on a similar trip around the Moon perhaps in 2019 (see “The risks and benefits of accelerating crewed SLS missions”, The Space Review, February 27, 2017).

Musk didn’t say if the mission was influenced in any way by that announcement. “I don’t know what their timetable is, and I’m not sure if we’ll be before or after, but I don’t think that’s really the important thing,” he said of NASA’s plans. “What matters is really the advancement of space exploration and exceeding the high-water mark that was set in 1969 with the Apollo program.”

Musk, though, suggested at a couple of different times in the call that he would be open to working with NASA on the mission, even to the point of flying NASA astronauts on the mission, thus presumably kicking off his unnamed commercial clients.

“NASA always has the right, always has first priority,” he said. “So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority. NASA is our first priority in missions like this.”

Three days after Musk’s announcement, the Washington Post announced that Blue Origin was proposing its own lunar concept. It proposed a cargo lander, called Blue Moon, that could carry several thousand kilograms of cargo to the lunar surface, and be used to help establish a human base. The report specifically cited the lunar south pole region, where many scientists believe there are deposits of water ice in permanently-shadowed regions of craters there, as well as so-called “peaks of eternal light” that are in near-constant sunlight.

(The fact that the Post broke the story raised some eyebrows, given that the newspaper, like Blue Origin, is owned by founder Jeff Bezos. But more interesting is the timing: the news broke a few hours before Bezos accepted an award from Aviation Week magazine at a black-tie ceremony in Washington. Moreover, Bezos reportedly met with NASA officials while in town last week.)

“We are hoping to partner with NASA on a program called Blue Moon, where we would provide a cargo delivery service to the surface of the Moon, with the intent over time of building a permanently-inhabited human settlement on the Moon,” Bezos said at the awards event, in Aviation Week. “It’s time for America to go back to the Moon, and this time to stay.”

“But I think that if you go to the Moon first and make the Moon your home, then you can get to Mars more easily,” Bezos said.

The lander, Bezos explained, would be based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing technology that Blue Origin developed for its New Shepard suborbital vehicle (and for which Bezos was receiving the award.) A version of the BE-3 engine developed for New Shepard would power a transfer stage to send the lander to the Moon. The lander’s payload capacity is optimized if launched on an SLS, he said, but it could also launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 “and deliver a more modest payload.” (Curiously, he didn’t mention Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket under development, whose payload capacity is likely to be somewhere between Atlas V and SLS.)

Going to the Moon, Bezos said, was also important for missions to Mars, something he has not emphasized to anywhere the same degree as Musk. “It’s a very exciting idea to go to the Moon and really explore it and go to stay. And that, in my view, is the fastest way to get to Mars, which is also a very glamorous and exciting destination,” he said. “But I think that if you go to the Moon first and make the Moon your home, then you can get to Mars more easily.”

Many have interpreted the announcements last week by Blue Origin and SpaceX as a sign of a shift in space policy. The Trump Administration, they argue, wants to go back to the Moon, and companies are lining up to be able to support that effort.

The problem with that simplistic analysis is that the administration has not revealed its space policy yet. Moreover, space is traditionally a low priority for new administrations, and this is no exception. President Trump has not nominated a new NASA administrator, despite months of rumors of who that person might be, and a 2018 budget proposal that might provide details about the administration’s plans won’t be released until later this month, with full details to follow in May.

On Tuesday, many in the space community got excited about a report, tied to only a “senior administration official,” that the president would mention some kind of commitment to human spaceflight in his Joint Address to Congress that night. But when the speech came, the only reference to space was a line near the end that “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream” by the 250th anniversary of the country’s independence in 2026. A report after the speech, citing another senior administration official (or, perhaps, the same one), claimed that more details about space were cut from the speech to keep it under one hour.

So, instead of companies responding to a new administration policy, they may well be instead trying to influence that policy by promoting ideas already under development. SpaceX had reportedly been working on its circumlunar mission idea for two years, and the Blue Moon concept likely has been quietly under development for some time. What better way to help shape policy by suggesting “shovel-ready” projects ready to go to provide early momentum, particularly for an administration expected to be friendly to private ventures?

Nothing is certain, least of all SpaceX’s schedule: its plan to fly the mission in late 2018 has faced considerable skepticism, given both the milestones it must achieve prior to the flight—including finally flying Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2—and SpaceX’s reputation for slipping schedules. Just ten days earlier, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company’s Red Dragon uncrewed Mars lander mission, announced last year for launch in 2018, would slip to 2020. Even the announcement of its lunar mission, scheduled for 4 pm Eastern, was half an hour late.