SpaceX announced on Feb. 27, 2017, that it will be sending two people on a free-return trajectory around the Moon in late 2018 using the company’s yet-to-be-flown Crew Dragon spacecraft. The announcement came with less than 24 hours notice when the NewSpace company’s CEO and founder Elon Musk tweeted about it.
According to a news release from the company, SpaceX was approached by two private citizens for the trip sometime next year. The trajectory will be a “long loop” around the Moon, reaching about 400,000 miles (650,000 kilometers) from Earth with no landing on the surface. The two citizens will fly alone with no professional astronaut with them.
“They have already paid a significant deposit to do a Moon mission,” the announcement stted. “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.”
SpaceX did not identify the individuals and said they will undergo health and fitness tests, as well as training, later this year. The company said other flight teams have expressed strong interest and it will release more information about them contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness tests results.
In the press release, SpaceX thanked NASA, for, without the U.S. space agency, the company would not be as far along as they are now. The Commercial Crew Program provided most of the funding for the Crew Dragon’s development.
The mission will fly into space atop the also yet-to-be-flown Falcon Heavy rocket. Its debut mission is slated for sometime in Summer 2017. Once it launches successfully, it will be the most powerful vehicle to send payloads into space since the retirement of the Saturn V Moon rocket.
SpaceX stated Falcon Heavy will have 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which is two-thirds the thrust of the Saturn V and over double that of the next largest launch vehicle currently in service.
If this mission flies on time in late 2018, it is entirely possible SpaceX may beat NASA’s timeline of sending a crew to the Moon, even if a proposed acceleration of crewed flight is ultimately accepted. Musk, however, did not think it would be that big of a deal.
The first test flight of the company’s Crew Dragon is expected to occur later this year. According to NASASpaceflight, the current plan calls for a two-week uncrewed demo flight from Nov. 11 to Nov. 25, 2017. During that period, the spacecraft will rendezvous and dock to the International Space Station’s newly installed International Docking Adapter, which is located on the forward end of the Harmony module.“I think what matters is really the advancement of space exploration and exceeding the high water mark that was set in 1969 by the Apollo program and just having a really exciting future,” Musk said.
Following that mission, SpaceX will perform a launch abort test sometime in early 2018 before flying the second demo mission of the Crew Dragon. This time it will have astronauts aboard. The current schedule calls for the month-long flight to take place in May 2018.
The launch will take place from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). SpaceX signed a 20-year lease on the complex in 2014. It has since renovated the pad to be able to launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The first flight from the pad took place on Feb. 19, 2017, sending a cargo variant of the company’s Dragon capsule to the space station.
LC-39A not only saw the start of dozens of Space Shuttle missions but also nearly all of the Apollo Moon missions as well. The last flight to go to Earth’s nearest neighbor occurred in December 1972. Since then no human has traveled further away from Earth than a few hundred miles.
“This 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,” the press release noted.
UPDATE – NASA released a statement regarding today’s SpaceX announcement:
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher.
“We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
“For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.
“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”