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SpaceX announces its plans for a private mission to the moon

In news that may not come as much of a surprise, CEO of SpaceX Elon Musk has announced the company’s plans to send two people around the moon in 2018. These unnamed space tourists, according to Musk, have already paid a “significant deposit” for the trip and will begin rigorous fitness tests and training later this year. We mustn’t forget, however, that Musk is known well for extending deadlines, often leading us to expect too much too soon.

If it all goes ahead, this will be the first manned mission to the moon for the U.S. since the 1970s. The trip around the Moon will take 1 week and although the travellers won’t in fact be landing on the moon per se, the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket will skim the moon’s surface before travelling further into deep space and looping back round to Earth. It’s estimated that this journey will total 300,000 – 400,000 miles and this will be the furthest any human has been from home. Not one person has travelled past low-earth orbit (basically the first step to being in space, some satellites live here) since the Apollo mission in 1972 so it will be a gargantuan step in the direction of space travel if SpaceX manage to achieve this before NASA or any other space agency. “Next year is going to be a big year for carrying people to the space station and hopefully beyond,” Musk said.

Although prompted, Musk declined to name the people who are set to take off, but certain reports have claimed that they are not from Hollywood (so not Kim and Kanye, then?). He also declined to comment on the cost of the trip but said that it was comparable to the cost of a crewed mission to the International Space Station. Although we don’t know exactly how much this is (but we expect A LOT) we do know that the cost of one ticket to the Russian Soyuz rocket sets NASA back somewhere around $80 million. SpaceX doesn’t expect this to be a one time only mission, either. The company claim that there are many others who have expressed a huge interest in the mission who we can only assume have a very healthy looking bank balance.

NASA have also recently announced that they wish to undertake a similar mission, setting astronauts off on the first flight of it’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System. Musk has ensured that NASA would always take precedence when it comes to any lunar orbit mission, however. NASA have contracted SpaceX to take humans to the International Space Station but have not yet themselves flown missions with humans although NASA’s current administrator Robert Lightfoot has discussed the idea of sending a crew to the moon, or even further into deep space, in 2019.

The Crew Dragon, the spacecraft due to be used for this SpaceX mission, is yet to be tested but Musk claims this will be done later this year without crew on board. The spacecraft itself is autonomous which means that for the majority of the crewed trip it will operate alone but those on board will still have to be trained to know how to step in if there is a problem. Of course, like all space exploration, the trip won’t come without risk and Musk stated that the passengers must be open minded about what could happen. At present, there are no government regulations in place to keep people safe during commercial space travel (which is probably down to the fact that there hasn’t been a need for them) although in 2004 Congress did pass the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act that states there must be a learning period without regulations for the private sector. This has been extended until 2023. If all goes well with this mission, commercial space flight will surely be regulated in the future.

The target date for this mission at present stands at 2018 and Musk tweeted about his confidence in this timescale despite reports from the Government Accountability Office that claims the required vehicles won’t be certified until the year after. It looks like we’ll just have to wait and see, but if the company’s past experience with goals and deadlines gives us anything to go from, we could be waiting a little while.

 

 

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