A return ticket to the Moon, please

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The Falcon Heavy with Dragon capsule attached

SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are getting hearts racing with excitement for wannabe space tourists. With the announcement by Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, that the company will be sending two private tourists on a trip to the Moon, dreams are becoming ever more real for some. This will mark the first trip of its kind for over 40 years; truly the ultimate act of one-upmanship in the holiday selfie race.

On Monday we learned that two private individuals approached SpaceX with the intention of a space cruise that would end up being a week long. After some scratching of heads, “um”s and “ah”s and a big cheque slammed on the table, SpaceX have given the go-ahead with an auspicious launch date of just next year.

“This would do a long loop around the Moon,” Mr Musk said in the announcement. Minus all the rocket science and buttons, the trip is quite simple, really: a fly past the Moon without landing, continuing outward before gravity turns the shuttle homeward-bound for a seat-arresting plummet back into the Earth’s atmosphere. The Moon stands almost a quarter of a million miles from Earth, yet the trajectory will take the capsule 300,000-400,000 miles away. A bit more than a pop to the shops and “a little bit more than the cost of a crewed mission to the space station would be”.

An impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule

The Falcon Heavy itself, the rocket in which the flight will take place, has a list price of more than £70m. Part of this rocket is the Dragon 2 capsule. This will house the couple for a week, along with propellants, oxygen, water, etc. to sustain them.

Yet, whilst this trip certainly seems within the technical reaches of the company, there has been great doubt cast by some prominent public figures in this industry as to whether they can pull it off in as short a time as proposed. “Dates are not SpaceX’s strong suit,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration. Both the Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy are years behind schedule and have yet to fly. “It strikes me as risky,” said Dr Dittmar, which seems pretty apt considering the explosive launches that took place recently.

Beyond the timing, arguably the biggest cause for concern is the launch itself. Whilst Virgin Galactic have had recent success, SpaceX is prone to problems. Just last week a crewless Dragon capsule destined for the ISS aborted its rendezvous due to a glitch. It arrived, successfully, a day later.

So, as well as being rich, the two passengers will also have to pull a fairly brave stunt. So far, 18 cosmonauts and astronauts have died in space, taking the percentage fatality rate to around 1.4% of people per flight. Having said that, Mr Musk has made it clear that they are doing “everything [they] can to minimise the risk, but it’s not zero”.

The million-dollar view of Earth from the Moon

This actually does not seem to be a cause for concern for the passengers, or anyone for that matter, since, though a private mission, NASA have once again meticulously prodded their old and far-reaching hands into this project, hoping to yield a result in their favour. Officials have estimated that this will delay the launch date to 2019, but surely this is just an extra opportunity to double-check and ensure absolutely everything and everyone is ready for the flight?

NASA astronauts have been deprived of the opportunity of deep space venture since their last launch of Apollo 17 in 1972, so the response from NASA, given on Monday, came as no surprise: “NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher. We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to US soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station”. Mr Musk has said he will comply if NASA do decide to put astronauts on the flight.

For now, we look forward to seeing the outcome of the crewless maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy this summer, followed by a flight by NASA’s capsule Orion that will shadow the path outlined by SpaceX in spring next year.