On Monday, Feb. 27, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for his company to send two privately-paying “space tourists” on a trip around the Moon in late 2018. According to Musk it’s a voyage that would send them, aboard SpaceX’s still-in-development Dragon 2 spacecraft, on a “long loop” past the Moon and out to about 400,000 miles before returning—farther than any of NASA’s Apollo missions and even farther into space than any humans have ever traveled.
This announcement came as a surprise to many people, especially those who know the amazingly enthusiastic nature of a late 2018 target and how much work yet remains for a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft, especially considering SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has yet to launch.
SpaceX’s news release on Monday was quickly met by one from NASA, with whom the company is currently under contract to develop human transportation capabilities for transport to the Space Station and whose taxpayer-provided funding is paying for development of the Dragon vehicle. SpaceX has yet to launch Dragon 2 or achieve human rating from NASA, even though it was slated to begin flying astronauts to Station next year.
“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,” said NASA’s representatives—somewhat pointedly—in a responsive press release.
This news also happened to come just a couple of weeks after a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that delays by SpaceX and Boeing—the two companies contracted to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS for NASA—will likely push any U.S. launches past 2018, requiring yet more Soyuz seats for American astronauts.
I don’t have any insider information from either SpaceX or NASA, but I can’t help but wonder how the former plans to achieve a 2018 launch of a crewed Dragon 2, and if the latter wonders if its needs—and the needs of the country—are being overlooked in favor of additional profit (which, admittedly, SpaceX as a privately-funded company relies upon.) In addition, is this putting Dragon 2 in direct competition with NASA’s Orion spacecraft?
“By putting forth the idea that its Dragon spacecraft could essentially fly the same mission as Orion for much, much less than the government, SpaceX is boldly telling the Trump administration that the private sector could get the job done if Orion were axed from the space agency’s budget to cut costs,” writes space journalist Eric Berger on Ars Technica.
Read more in this story from Eric Berger here: SpaceX plans to send two people around the Moon in late 2018