SpaceX's Private Lunar Mission in Work for Last Two Years; Other Opportunities on Horizon

NASA astronauts NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, center, and Sunita “Suni” Williams sit inside a Crew Dragon mockup during an evaluation visit for the Crew Dragon spacecraft at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters. Photo Credit: SpaceX

When SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk revealed Monday an audacious plan to deliver a pair of private citizens “on a trip around the Moon” in the fall of 2018, the impact was immense and immediate. Coming only days after NASA announced the onset of a study to potentially add a crew to its long-awaited Exploration Mission (EM)-1, the unfolding first quarter of 2017 seems stamped with a renewed vigor on both private and governmental levels to once again venture beyond low-Earth orbit with humans. If SpaceX meets its self-imposed target of a flight late next year, it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, which saw NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders circumnavigate the Moon way back in December 1968.

However, in recent comments provided to AmericaSpace, SpaceX revealed that its plans for the lunar voyage have been under consideration for at least the past two years. More intriguingly, “additional requests” for other private flights were also made, with Monday’s announced mission “and at least one more” having emerged relatively recently. It remains to be seen what the nature of these potential missions will be and SpaceX are presently keeping tight-lipped about whether they will voyage to low-Earth orbit or beyond.

Since the formation of SpaceX, way back in May 2002, Mr. Musk has made no secret of his intent to deliver humans into deep space, colonizing Mars and other destinations in the Solar System. As part of this architecture, SpaceX has focused on reusability technologies: most visibly the capability to return spent first stages of its Falcon 9 booster to soft landings on either the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans or on solid ground at Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Having thus far brought eight Falcon 9 first stages safely back to Earth between December 2015 and February 2017, SpaceX now stands ready to re-use one of them on an upcoming flight in March to deliver the SES-10 communications satellite to orbit.

A long-term partner with NASA, SpaceX was one of two commercial entities to support the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) effort to deliver cargo and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS). Following the signing of the inaugural CRS agreements, back in December 2008, SpaceX also won a $2.6 billion share of the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract, which will see its Crew Dragon (or “Dragon 2”) spacecraft deliver astronauts to the ISS on a rotating basis, thereby helping to eliminate NASA’s uneasy reliance on the Russian Soyuz vehicles.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for the critical Pad Abort Test in early 2015. Photo Credit: SpaceX SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for the critical Pad
Abort Test in early 2015. Photo Credit: SpaceX


However, as outlined last year by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian, ongoing technical issues forced SpaceX to postpone an unpiloted and piloted test flight of the Crew Dragon to the ISS, with the former now scheduled to fly no sooner than November 2017 and the latter no earlier than May 2018. When these “certification” missions have been completed, SpaceX will receive the green light to push ahead with six “operational” Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) to the space station. The first two PCM awards were issued in November 2015 and July 2016, followed by four more in January 2017. The timeline for when these PCMs will take place remains in flux, although has recently indicated that they may begin as soon as September 2018.

In SpaceX’s press release on its website, it was noted that the passenger-carrying lunar flight of a Crew Dragon will not take place until both the unpiloted and piloted test flights have been completed and the PCMs are underway. “Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA,” it was stressed, “SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the Moon and return to Earth.” The close proximity of the first ISS-bound PCM in September 2018 and the proposed end-of-year lunar voyage raise concerns that both dates may slip to the right. Already, SpaceX’s bold plan to send an unpiloted Crew Dragon vehicle to Mars as soon as 2018 has already moved to no sooner than 2020, despite only being announced last year.

Aside from the readiness of the spacecraft to carry humans, the status of SpaceX’s home-grown Falcon Heavy rocket remains equally uncertain, with a tentative target of summer 2017 for its maiden flight. The Heavy—which comprises three Falcon 9 boosters, one serving as a central core, side-mounted to two others—was intended by SpaceX from the outset to be capable of delivering humans to the Moon and Mars. With a total propulsive yield from its 27 Merlin 1D+ engines of more than 5.1 million pounds (2.3 million kg) at liftoff, the three cores and a single Merlin 1D+ engine on the second stage carry the potential to deliver 35,000 pounds (16,000 kg) of payload across cislunar space to the Moon. And if all goes well, the Heavy will position the Crew Dragon for the first Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) of a human-carrying vehicle in 46 years.

Originally targeted to conduct its first flight in the 2013 timeframe, the Falcon Heavy has met with significant delay, not least after the failures of a pair of Falcon 9 vehicles in flight in June 2015 and on the launch pad in September 2016. Last December, SpaceX shared images of a Falcon Heavy “interstage”—a key structural component between the first and second stages—under construction. Current plans call for the Falcon Heavy to undertake an initial test flight this summer, followed by a mission carrying the Space Test Program (STP)-2 mixed payload in support of the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process for future national security customers. This will be followed by Saudi Arabia’s heavyweight Arabsat-6A communications satellite in 2018. Several other potential commercial customers originally signed up for Falcon Heavy launches, but subsequently moved to alternate vehicles: Intelsat will now fly one of its birds on a standard Falcon 9 and Inmarsat will ride Europe’s Ariane 5 later this year.

The Falcon Heavy is targeted for its maiden voyage later in 2017. Image Credit: SpaceX The Falcon Heavy is targeted for its maiden voyage
later in 2017. Image Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy is targeted for its maiden voyage later in 2017. Image Credit: SpaceX

With this in mind, the passenger-carrying lunar flight may wind up as only the third or fourth voyage of the Heavy…and may also prove to be its very first foray into space with a human crew. No details have yet been forthcoming from SpaceX as to exactly how many missions of the new booster will be required before it can be entrusted with humans; nor, indeed, have any details emerged about the specific engineering or procedural hurdles still to be overcome in the human-rating process of the Heavy. “We are working on the safety plan, but it will be founded on what we have learned by being certified to fly EELV and Crew missions for NASA,” SpaceX told AmericaSpace on Tuesday. “Falcon Heavy is made of the same building blocks as Falcon 9, though there are some obvious differences that need to get looked at and readied to fly crew.”

Of course, the Saturn V—currently the most powerful rocket ever to attain operational service—flew with humans on only its third flight. However, this situation came about principally in response to CIA reports that the Soviet Union was close to achieving its own piloted circumlunar mission and must be seen in the political context of its time. Having been flown in November 1967 and April 1968, with mixed results, an audacious plan was hurriedly set in motion to deliver men to lunar orbit on Apollo 8. A few months later, in December 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first emissaries of Earth to travel to our closest celestial neighbor, kicking off an ambitious salvo of Saturn V flights which triumphantly planted American boots on the Moon in July 1969 and by December 1972 had seen 12 men leave their footprints in the lunar dust.

Tantalizingly, SpaceX also hinted that other related missions have been on the horizon for some length of time. “We had been approached over two years ago to do something like this,” AmericaSpace was told. “A few additional requests over the same period and then this opportunity (and at least one more) came quite recently.” At present, is not known who approached SpaceX—whether individuals or organizations, and whether private or governmental—and the nature of the “additional requests” and the “at least one more” mission remain to be seen. Also unclear is the potential destinations and objectives of these additional flights.

In Monday’s announcement, Mr. Musk noted two fare-paying passengers aboard the lunar flight, but did not indicate the presence or absence of additional dedicated pilots on the crew. It is believed that the Crew Dragon will operate autonomously—in essence flying a figure-8 circumlunar voyage on a “free-return” trajectory—and it was highlighted that the passengers will undergo health and fitness checks and begin “initial training” later in 2017. As-yet unnamed, these passengers have paid “a significant deposit” for this opportunity. If the mission reaches fruition, they will become the 25th and 26th humans to cross the 240,000-mile (370,000 km) gulf of cislunar space to reach the Moon.

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