Two unnamed and presumably very well-heeled people have booked a flight around the Moon using unproven hardware from SpaceX.
The announcement was made on Monday by CEO Elon Musk. He said the two passengers will be launched in a Dragon 2 capsule using Falcon Heavy rockets for a trip around our natural satellite. They will become the first humans to leave low-Earth orbit in nearly 50 years, earning them plaudits if they make it back.
"Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration," said SpaceX. "We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training, later this year."
The US biz said the duo had already paid a "significant deposit" for the trip, and other people had also expressed an interest in circling the Moon on a pleasure jaunt. However there are some significant hurdles to be overcome first.
As SpaceX acknowledges, the Dragon 2 capsule that will be used for the trip hasn't even been certified for human transport as yet and is running behind schedule. NASA has been putting the Dragon through its paces, including testing emergency systems, which aren't due to be completed until late this year or early next.
SpaceX has said it plans to send an unmanned Dragon 2 capsule up to the International Space Station before the end of the year, and wants to put a crewed vehicle up to the ISS in the first half of 2018. Given the years of preparation that have gone into the Dragon 2, the capsule does look trustworthy.
However, the trip is also going to require the use of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy lifter, which is five years behind schedule. This Heavy straps two modified Falcon 9 rockets onto the side of a main rocket and will be the most powerful engine since the Saturn V if it flies.
In Monday's announcement, SpaceX said it would stage the first Falcon Heavy flight "this summer," but the firm has been making similar predictions since 2013 and we've yet to see the launch system fired, let alone see its three rockets land themselves again according to the plan.
"Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth," the space org said.
"Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center's historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years, and they will travel faster and farther into the Solar System than any before them."
And now the reality
While SpaceX's announcement is typically bold, based on past experience, the above schedule for the Moon trip looks very sketchy. If you're the type of person who has the megabucks to make such a trip, you're going to want to get back in one piece and not face the risk of either being stuck out in space or returning to Earth in pieces as an interesting light show.
Under those constraints, The Reg would expect SpaceX to miss its timeline in the same way that it has had to revise the schedule for flying a reused rocket, making it to Mars, and plenty of other predictions from Elon Musk. 2019 should be possible, but everything would need to go right for even that to work out.
What today's announcement does do is put real pressure on SpaceX's competition. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are working on taking rich tourists just above the Kármán Line 62 miles (100 kilometres) up, which will allow the passengers to legitimately claim to be astronauts and should give them a few minutes in low-orbit free fall.
Compared to going around the Moon with SpaceX, that's going to look pretty weak sauce. It all depends on the cost. Virgin is proposing a $250,000 flight cost, for example, for its trip, and it thinks it can make a profit on that. SpaceX's trip would be many times more expensive.
No figures were given on the cost, but some basic mathematics shows SpaceX is either going to lose a ton of money on these trips, or will have to set the price tag very high. The basic cost to SpaceX for a single virgin Falcon 9 flight is around $30m (no price yet for reused rockets), and three boosters get used. Then there is the cost of the capsule, supplies, and guidance and navigation and you'd not get much change out of $100m, even before trying to add on a profit margin.
It's also a middle finger to NASA's Orion project, the US space agency's effort to send astronauts on a return trip into deep space. Orion is chasing things like asteroids and Mars, with the 2020s in mind for getting to a far-out space rock. It might be able to pull off a crewed test by 2019, and SpaceX reckons it can beat that.
To sum up, realistically, we've got a big publicity stunt announcement with some dodgy economics – one which will bring Elon much love from the space community and annoy his competitors. But it's unlikely to happen on time, on budget, or in a way that makes the company any profit. ®