SpaceX plans to fly 2 tourists around moon

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Marco San­tana | Staff writer

SpaceX has set its sights on launch­ing two pri­vate cit­i­zens on a flight around the moon in 2018, which could be the far­thest manned mis­sion into space since the Apollo pro­gram. It would also be a dra­matic ex­pan­sion of space tourism.

The two peo­ple al­ready have “paid a sig­nif­i­cant de­posit” for the mis­sion, said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk on Mon­day. The plan is to launch from Florida, us­ing the his­toric Com­plex 39A at Kennedy

Space Cen­ter, which was used in the Apollo mis­sions.

SpaceX has launched reg­u­larly from Florida for years but hasn’t car­ried peo­ple. Space tourism so far has been lim­ited to a trickle of paid pas­sen­gers, mostly on Rus­sian rockets. NASA’s plans for car­ry­ing more pri­vate cit­i­zens to space were interrupted by the Chal­lenger and Columbia space shut­tle dis­as­ters.

Musk did not re­veal the iden­ti­ties of his cus­tomers, but said they would have “ex­ten­sive train­ing” to pre­pare for the launch, which he said could come near the end of next year. The moon mis­sion could open a new rev­enue stream for the­com­pany, Musk said.

Robert Salo­nen, Florida In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s di­rec­tor of global busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, said the wouldbe space pas­sen­gers can help prove the vi­a­bil­ity of the emerg­ing com­mer­cial space in­dus­try.

“It’s an ex­cit­ing time for those that are in­ter­ested in space­flight and those just be­ing ex­posed to it for the first time,” Salo­nen said.

Musk said he hopes the planned mis­sion will get the world ex­cited about “send­ing peo­ple into deep space again.” He es­ti­mated the mis­sion would take a week, with the space­craft trav­el­ing in a “long loop around the moon,” into deep space then back to Earth.

He said NASA would be closely in­volved in the mis­sion’s plan­ning. SpaceX and United Launch Al­liance have been work­ing with NASA on their com­mer­cial crew pro­gram, which launches satel­lites and pay­loads to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion among other things. Musk said that pro­gram would still get first pri­or­ity.

“NASA al­ways has the right to first pri­or­ity,” Musk said. “If NASA de­cides to have the first mis­sion of this na­ture be an as­tro­naut, of course NASA would take pri­or­ity.”

Florida’s space of­fi­cials wel­comed the new plan.

“We are clearly on the edge of hu­mankind’s reach into space in a more-de­moc­ra­tized way,” said Frank DiBello, pres­i­dent and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s space mar­ket­ing and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment group. “It is be­yond just the do­main of a few op­er­at­ing un­der a gov­ern­ment pro­gram. I think you’ll even­tu­ally be­gin to see com­pa­nies con­duct busi­ness on and around the lu­nar sur­face and, even­tu­ally, be­yond that.”

But there are some who worry about the bold na­ture of the new mis­sion. Ray Lugo, di­rec­tor of UCF’s Space In­sti­tute, said SpaceX has not had the sus­tained suc­cess nec­es­sary to showit can safely launch hu­mans.

“It seems to me to be a risky move,” said Lugo, whose fa­ther worked in the space in­dus­try dur­ing the Apollo mis­sions. “SpaceX is a pri­vate com­pany, so it’s hard to know how far along they are. But it doesn’t seem like they have done enough yet to demon­strate the ca­pa­bil­ity to launch some­one to the moon.”

SpaceX plans to test a new rocket con­fig­u­ra­tion, the Fal­con Heavy, and will also be test­ing a new ver­sion of its Dragon space cap­sule, the Crew Dragon (Dragon Ver­sion 2), which is the cap­sule that would carry the space tourists. The Crew Dragon test flight will be part of the com­mer­cial crew pro­gram, ona mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, in au­to­matic mode, with­out peo­ple on board.

SpaceX is cur­rently con­tracted to per­form an av­er­age of four Dragon 2 mis­sions to the ISS per year, three car­ry­ing cargo and one car­ry­ing crew. The com­pany said fly­ing pri­vately crewed mis­sions, which NASA has en­cour­aged, will lower long-term costs to the gov­ern­ment and pro­vide flight re­li­a­bil­ity his­tory.

Musk said the two who signed up for the mis­sion un­der­stand the risks in­volved with rocket launches. He did not say how much the mis­sion will cost.

“They are en­ter­ing this with eyes wide open, know­ing there is some risk here,” he said of the cus­tomers. “They are cer­tainly not naïve. We do what we can to min­i­mize risk, but it’s not zero.”

The com­pany still has work to do to make sure its ve­hi­cle can be used for the mis­sion. Some mod­i­fi­ca­tions must be made to the Dragon 2 space­craft, in­clud­ing up­grades that will al­low com­mu­ni­ca­tion from deep space. In ad­di­tion, the FAA still has to eval­u­ate the cap­sule as a manned ve­hi­cle, Musk said.

The goal is to send a Dragon 2 to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion with­out as­tro­nauts be­fore the end of this year. Musk said that could be fol­lowed about six months later with a manned launch.

The moon or­bit mis­sion would then fol­low six months af­ter that, he said.

Launch Com­plex 39A re­cently hosted its first launch since the U.S. shut­tle pro­gram ended in 2011, an un­manned SpaceX cargo mis­sion.

AP FILE

SpaceX hopes its Dragon cap­sule, above, will carry two peo­ple to the moon next year on a pri­vate flight.

GETTY IMAGES/FILE

The in­te­rior of SpaceX's new seven-seat Dragon V2 space­craft, which is de­signed to carry tourists into space.

Musk

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