SpaceX said Monday it plans to fly two private citizens on a mission around the moon by late 2018 as part of a lunar journey that would last about a week and travel deeper into space than any human has ventured before.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk would not name the two individuals, who he said approached the company and would pay for the flight.
The announcement is yet another bold declaration by SpaceX, the leader of a host of entrepreneurial commercial space ventures that have ended governments’ long-standing monopoly on space.
Musk is famous for laying out ambitious timelines and goals – he ultimately plans to colonize Mars, for example – that often get pushed back. SpaceX has never flown people before, and two of the company’s rockets have blown up in the past two years. Some say this mission, aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to fly, could also be delayed.
But Musk has had a string of successes that have upended that traditional space industry. The company has a long-running partnership with NASA, which has pumped millions of dollars into SpaceX, hiring it to fly cargo and eventually crews to the International Space Station.
While President Donald Trump has yet to name a new NASA administrator, there are signs that his administration wants to continue to work with the private sector, and companies are sensing a huge opportunity on a potential lunar mission.
In a call with reporters, Musk said he is not in competition with the government space agency. He also said that if NASA wanted to partner on the lunar mission, that would take priority over the two private individuals.
“What matters is the advancement of space exploration and exceeding the high-water mark that was set in 1969 with the Apollo program,” he said, “and having a really exciting future in space that inspires the world.”
In a blog post, he said the mission “presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years, and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.”
Musk has met with Trump or his associates several times, first in New York and later at the White House. Trump has indicated interest in doing something bold in space; during the transition, he spoke with historian Douglas Brinkley about President John F. Kennedy’s vow to go to the moon.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said of Musk: “He’s in pretty close contact with the White House folks. Who’s whispering in whose ear?”
Others in the industry also sense an opening.
“With the new administration, regardless of what you think politically, comes a new sense of commercial partnerships, which is good for us in the space industry,” said Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, a private company that plans to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon this year in a race to claim the Google Lunar XPrize.
“I feel, as many do, a lunar tide rising. The political environment is catching up with logic” regarding the moon as an important step for even deeper space exploration, he said.
A SpaceX mission in 2018 probably would circle the moon before NASA gets another chance. The agency recently announced that it is considering adding astronauts to the first flight of its Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. That flight, originally scheduled to fly without humans in 2018, also would circle the moon. But as NASA seeks to move faster under the Trump administration, it is studying the feasibility of adding crews to the mission, which would then occur by 2019, officials have said.
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” the agency said in a statement released by spokesman Bob Jacobs.
James Muncy, an analyst at the consultancy PoliSpace, said SpaceX’s announcement could alter NASA’s plans. A crewed flight by 2019 would be enormously expensive, he said. Now, NASA could remain on its original timetable.
SpaceX’s lunar mission is another in several grand plans announced by SpaceX. Since Musk founded it in 2002, the company has made one bold proclamation after another, often earning jeers from skeptics who say that Musk moves too fast in an industry that demands caution.
Despite the explosions of two of SpaceX’s rockets, Musk said Monday that the company’s “success rate is actually quite high.”
Still, he acknowledged the dangers of the mission.
The passengers “are entering this with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here” he said. “They are certainly not naive. We’ll do everything we can to minimize that risk. But it’s not zero.”
But while many of his plans face delays, Musk has pulled off several noteworthy successes. That includes becoming the first private company to fly to the International Space Station and the first to land the first stage of a rocket that had lifted a payload into orbit.
Along with Boeing, SpaceX has a contract to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. While the Government Accountability Office recently reported that both companies could face delays, SpaceX has maintained that it is on track for the first crewed mission by the middle of next year, which would come about six months before the private lunar flight.
Lori B. Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA under President Barack Obama, expressed doubt that SpaceX could pull off a lunar mission in the next couple of years. But she said that it could be done by 2020 and that doing so would be “fantastic.”
“It would show that we, in this country, are still in space, and innovating and exploring and capturing the excitement that we have. I think it would be very positive,” Garver said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Christian Davenport, Joel Achenbach