SLS versus Falcon Heavy
A race to the moon between NASA's SLS and Orion (left) and SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Dragon (right) could be development, based on recent events. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

The announcement Feb. 27 that SpaceX plans to launch before the end of next year two people “on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth” is bringing a new kind of space race into sharper focus, a race between commercial space and traditional government civil space programs. If all goes according to plan, this private mission leads to the real possibility of humans returning to the vicinity of the moon on a commercial spaceflight before NASA can complete its own lunar flyby mission.

SpaceX announced that the company will launch a Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a Crew Dragon spacecraft with two paying customers on a private mission around the Moon and back to Earth in late 2018. The firm is separately under contract as part of NASA’s commercial crew program to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit using Crew Dragon and the smaller Falcon 9 rocket, beginning as early as next year.

NASA plans an uncrewed flight of the Orion spacecraft, now being readied for launch without some of the subsystems required for crew, on the first flight of the Space Launch System in the fall of 2018. The first crewed flight is officially planned for 2023, although NASA has an internal goal to fly the mission as early as 2021.

At the request of the Trump administration, NASA recently started a short study to evaluate the potential for including crew on the first SLS/Orion flight. The study is set for completion next month. A decision to include crew would push this mission into 2019 in order to complete additional engineering and subsystems required to accommodate crew, with commensurate budget impacts.

Flying crew on the first flight of the SLS presumes concerns about the risk of flying crew on the first flight of a new, very large and powerful rocket can be assuaged. The private moon tourists will be riding a spacecraft and launch vehicle that will have already flown several times, if all goes according to SpaceX plans.

Of course, saying one is flying to the moon next year is one thing; pulling it off is another.

Not insignificant is that SpaceX has yet to fly the Falcon Heavy. The first flight is scheduled for later this year, several years later than initially planned.

Stepping up from single-core launch vehicles to a three-core configuration like Falcon Heavy is not trivial. Getting everything on essentially three rockets to work properly simultaneously while staying together, then separating only when you want them to, is not easy. Before the similar three-barrel, and now successful, Delta 4 Heavy configuration flew, a former boss of mine once described it as “three cores flying in close formation.”

Presumably, SpaceX would also still have to resolve concerns raised by the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and others about plans for fueling the booster with crew already aboard the Crew Dragon capsule atop it. While private citizens may well decide they are willing to take that risk, the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches and presumably would approve this flight, may decide otherwise.

The price for this lunar journey remains to be seen (and the cost; remember, they are not the same thing.) SpaceX advertises on their website a price of $90 million for a standard Falcon Heavy mission for up to eight metric tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit. Prices for actual Falcon Heavy missions under contract have not been publicized. An average seat price of $58 million has been stated for commercial crew flights to the ISS.

Whether the price for the first lunar circumnavigation with two people is some multiple of the standard Falcon Heavy price or a multiple of the commercial crew price, it will likely compare favorably with the alternative, despite any perceived capability advantages of Orion or the Space Launch System. The rock-bottom available estimate for just the SLS, once it is built, is $500 million per launch, and it will likely fly only once per year.

Overcoming significant technical challenges and space community skepticism, SpaceX has succeeded in achieving lofty goals. If they pull this one off, it will be one more giant leap for commercial space.

James Michael Knauf is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served 26 years in a variety of space acquisition posts, including deputy director of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. He is chairman of the AIAA Space Transportation Technical Committee. The author has no financial relationships with any of the parties mentioned.