Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thoughts on SpaceX’s moon plan



When I saw that Elon Musk was going to make an announcement yesterday afternoon, I – like everyone – wondered what it could be.  I figured the best I could hope for was that he would announce that SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace had signed a contract to launch an expandable module to be either a private space station or a space hotel in 2019, or so.  But I figured it was more likely some Mars-based project they were working on since, while I love SpaceX, they do seem to be – in my opinion – overly focused on Mars.

I had to go to work, so it wasn’t until late last night that I got home and remembered to look up what the big announcement was.  In case you don’t know (then why are you reading this?) SpaceX plans to launch one of their Dragon 2 capsules on one of their Falcon Heavy rockets next year.  Onboard will be two people who will spend about a week in space.  Instead of just flying around the Earth, they will fly out to the moon, go around the back – letting them look down on the Farside of the Moon – before returning to Earth.

I was happily surprised by that announcement.  As the author of “The Moon Before Mars: Why returning to the moon makesmore sense than rushing off to Mars” I support all endeavors that refocus attention on the moon.  That’s why I love the Google Lunar X Prize and Unite Launch Alliance’s CisLunar-1000 idea.  For decades it seems that all the public has heard is “Mars Mars Mars,” so this is a great way to remind people that the moon exists and we can go there now.

However, while I hope everything about this works out as planned, I do have some cynical thoughts on the matter.  First off, SpaceX and deadlines don’t always go together.  Hell, even the announcement of this was half-an-hour late.  So while they’re saying this will go off in late 2018, I’d say that mid-2019 is a far more likely earliest time this could happen.

More serious is I have to wonder if this is a new service SpaceX will offer – flying two or three groups around the moon every year – or if it’s just a one-time stunt.  Possible reasons for such a stunt would be that just a couple weeks ago they announced a delay in the Red Dragon mission, which was to land an uncrewed Dragon capsule on Mars.  It was supposed to go in 2018, but they wouldn’t be ready so the first launch has slipped to 2020.  (Due to their orbits, there’s a best case launch window between Earth and Mars about every twenty-six months.) Could this sudden announcement to fly by the moon be a way to say, “Don’t worry, we’re still planning amazing things!”? 

Another possible reason for a stunt is the rise of suborbital space tourism.  Last year Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic made progress in their plans on sending tourists into space to experience a few minutes of microgravity.  If their testing continues to go well, they might begin test flights this year and start carrying passengers next.  Could SpaceX’s plan be a … dickish way of saying, “Yeah, they can get you into space for five minutes, but we can get you into space for a week and send you around the moon”?

In the end, what really matters is what actually happens.  For every space venture that actually lifts off, there have been a few thousand that never got passed the planning stage.  Hell, the Russians have been talking about a similar mission of sending people around the moon for like a decade now, but nothing seems to have come of it.  But I wish SpaceX, as well as United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, and the hundreds of other space businesses all the success.  To be frank, I’m starting to get tired waiting for the world they will build.