SpaceX have managed to make quite a splash by announcing yesterday that they plan to send a couple of space tourists on a trip around the Moon by the end of next year!
Oh Elon, that’s such a dad joke to make. Naturally, this has been met with a variety of reactions. Hot takes range from skepticism…
…to talk of over-optimism…
…ok, so those are really the two main opinions which I’ve seen expressed, with one blogger suggesting that this may spell doom for NASA’s Orion program.
Personally, while I appreciate healthy skepticism, I’m not convinced pessimism is warranted – and that seems to be an ever easier line to cross. Though my feelings towards all of this are mixed and complex, and are likely to change as things progress. So as I sit here in a coffeeshop sipping on a cup of Earl Grey, I figure it may be interesting to try and break down my thoughts on the matter…
I’ve seen increasing amounts of criticism online towards SpaceX as it’s become increasingly apparent that not only are they willing to set challenging goals – but they’re entirely capable of meeting those goals. I don’t necessarily disagree with those criticisms, but it’s interesting to see how they’ve developed.
After all, SpaceX are the only private company in the world who’ve been able to build a spacecraft ultimately intended for passengers, send it into orbit, and dock with the ISS♣︎. Some other spaceflight companies have been unable to even reliably make suborbital flights. At least one company has folded.
I should clarify that I don’t intend to deride those companies, as this is a challenging business to attempt. However, the fact that SpaceX is so successful by comparison with the plethora of private space endeavours out there marks them as a significant force in 21st century spaceflight.
Given the Dragon was always intended to be a crewed vessel, SpaceX are arguably more accomplished than many government agencies. After the Dragon successfully takes humans into orbit, it will be one of only three functioning crewed space vehicles in the world – alongside Soyuz and Shenzhen☀︎.
Of course, it has yet to be tested with crew, or even a cabin suitable for passengers. Even the Falcon Heavy rocket isn’t going to be tested until sometime this year. But it’s worth pointing out that the Dragon made its maiden voyage in 2010. SpaceX has a lot more experience flying the Dragon now than NASA did flying Mercury when they sent John Glenn into orbit. In fact, as I wrote about not so long ago, NASA had only existed for 8 years when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Interesting that SpaceX will have the same amount of experience in time to send a Dragon to the Moon in time for the anniversary of Apollo 8, which made a very similar journey.
The truth is, a move like this from SpaceX comes as very little surprise to me. Saying that you want to orbit the moon next year would be overly ambitious if you hadn’t made any plans yet; proposed companies like Golden Spike or Mars One are ambitious because all they appear to have are good intentions in their heads and cash in their back pockets. But SpaceX have obviously been planning this kind of thing. Given the way Musk seems to operate, I doubt he’d make an announcement like this unless he already knew SpaceX had a good shot at it.
SpaceX have, from the start, had the long term goal of sending humans to Mars. Even the early concept sketches (gleefully shared by news sites and bloggers) showed the Red Dragon – a concept vehicle intended to land on Mars. In 2016, SpaceX unveiled its plans for Mars habitats – including a proof-of-concept launch for the Red Dragon. When the Grasshopper was a success in 2012, SpaceX proved that it can land a rocket on the surface of Earth. While this has huge implications for reusable spacecraft, it has another significant meaning – with only 38% the gravitation pull of Earth, landing a vehicle the same way on Mars will be much easier!
Of course, talk of going to Mars is still premature. This, I would say, is still ambitious without further testing. But that testing is being planned. An orbit of the moon, on the other hand, seems to be well within SpaceX’s capabilities, and would work as a proof of concept in itself. As you can see from the delta-v map I posted earlier, getting into Earth orbit is the most difficult part. It’s not an easy goal, of course. But perhaps Musk is choosing to do these things not because they’re easy but because they’re hard.
I do think it makes a poignant statement about human society, that the Apollo missions were motivated by the Cold War, and our species didn’t return to the moon until rich people were willing to pay for the privilege… However, it’s worth pointing out that SpaceX is, after all, a private company. No matter how noble their intention, they still need to make money. Space tourism seems a logical source of income. What’s more, it’s not as if they don’t already have about $100 million worth of investments in their company from people who aren’t Elon Musk.
In the end, I’m viewing this the same way I view first class passengers on airlines. Realistically, I’m probably never going to see a first class ticket in my life. But it’s thanks to those rich people paying exorbitant premium rates that air travel is affordable for the rest of us. If we’re stuck in a world that works this way – and it would appear that we are – then ultimately wealthy space tourists might pave at least part of the way for humanity’s future space travel. If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about that.
On a lighter note, SpaceX’s lofty ambitions do have at least one high profile supporter…
Let’s be honest, if Buzz Aldrin approves of your plans, that’s quite an accolade. But then, if anyone’s going to be in favour of humanity going back to the Moon, it’s certain to be him.
♣︎ Orbital ATK’s Cygnus vehicle has also successfully docked with the ISS, but this is a cargo only vehicle, more akin to ESA’s ATV or JAXA’s H-II.
☀︎ And if we’re honest, Shenzhen is basically just a Soyuz with extra solar panels stuck on.