Updated 6:30 a.m. Eastern Feb. 28 with NASA statement.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced Feb. 27 that the company is pursuing plans to launch two people on a Dragon spacecraft around the moon in late 2018.
In a call with reporters, Musk announced that SpaceX had been approached by two private individuals to fly on a Dragon 2 spacecraft, launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket, to fly around the moon and back in the fourth quarter of 2018.
“I think this should be a really exciting mission that gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again,” Musk said. “I think it should be super inspirational.”
In the mission concept, a Dragon 2 spacecraft — a version of the Dragon spacecraft being developed for NASA’s commercial crew program, also known as Crew Dragon — would launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Florida and fly a “free return” trajectory past the moon and out to a distance as far as 640,000 kilometers from the Earth, before returning. The entire mission would take about a week.
Musk declined to identify the two individuals who has signed up, beyond the fact that the two know each other. “They’ve not given us permission to release their names yet,” he said, saying more information about the customers would be available in the coming months.
He also declined to specify the cost of the mission, although the private customers have provided some money already. “They have placed a significant deposit,” he said. Musk later indicated that the cost of the mission would be, on a per-person basis, similar or slightly more that a mission to the International Space Station. NASA currently pays a little more than $80 million per Soyuz seat for an ISS mission, although SpaceX and fellow commercial crew company Boeing have promised lower prices for their spacecraft.
The mission would come after SpaceX demonstrates the Dragon 2 spacecraft capabilities with test flights to the ISS. An uncrewed test flight is planned for late this year, followed by a crewed flight in May 2018. Falcon Heavy, he added, is on track for its debut launch this summer.
The mission, Musk said, would require few modifications to either the Falcon Heavy or the Dragon 2. The biggest change, he said, would be in the communications system in the Dragon 2 to permit deep space communications between the spacecraft and Earth.
News of the planned mission comes less than two weeks after NASA announced that it was studying flying crew on the first launch of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, a mission previously planned to fly without a crew. That mission, like SpaceX’s plan, would involve a lunar free-return flight lasting about a week.
Musk didn’t indicate that SpaceX’s plan was motivated in any way by NASA’s study. “We’re generally encouraging of anything advances the course of space exploration,” he said. “The SLS/Orion mission would be exciting, as well.”
On more than one occasion during the call, which lasted less than half an hour, Musk suggested that NASA could take priority over the private customers on this mission. “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.”
In a statement issued late Feb. 27, NASA said it “commends” companies like SpaceX for proposing such missions, but did not explicitly state an interest in participating. “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,” it stated.
Musk acknowledged in the call that such a mission, which would be the first human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in December 1972, carries some degree of risk. “They’re certainly not naïve,” he said of the people signed up for the flight. “We’ll do everything that we can to minimize that risk, but it’s not zero.”
If SpaceX can keep to that schedule — not a given based on the unprecedented nature of this mission and SpaceX’s reputation for schedule slips — this flight would cap off a year that would also feature the beginning of crewed transports to the ISS and an accelerated rate of overall missions. “Next year is going to be the big year for carrying people, to the space station and hopefully beyond,” he said.