In a hastily arranged announcement, Elon Musk has revealed a plan to launch a Dragon 2 spacecraft on a circumlunar mission, with two paying customers. The launch, which will be conducted by a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2018, is being seen as a major statement of intent by SpaceX, especially when NASA is conducting a study to launch a similar mission at least a year later.
The announcement came as a surprise. Mr. Musk tweeted about the upcoming reveal with less than 24 hours notice.
The lack of additional specifics resulted in mass speculation within the space flight community, fostering rumors that ranged from some sort of financial announcement through to the much-anticipated reveal of the SpaceX Space Suit, hot on the heels of Boeing’s Starliner suit announcement.
Numerous SpaceX employees said they had not been informed of what the announcement was about during Monday.
The reveal was made in a short address from Mr. Musk to a handful of media during a five minute teleconference. A statement was later published on the SpaceX official site.
Falcon Heavy is set to conduct her maiden flight later this year, while Dragon 2 will debut on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) – currently set to occur from 11 to 25 November 2017. Details on the latest schedule were revealed by NASASpaceFlight.com’s Pete Harding over the weekend.
“Later this year, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, we will launch our Crew Dragon (Dragon Version 2) spacecraft to the International Space Station. This first demonstration mission will be in automatic mode, without people on board,” noted SpaceX in the statement that showed the path to the lunar mission.
“A subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly in the second quarter of 2018. SpaceX is currently contracted to perform an average of four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three carrying cargo and one carrying crew.”
SpaceX had planned to launch a mission to Mars – in cooperation with NASA – in 2018. Known as Red Dragon, the mission would have also involved a Falcon Heavy lofting a deep space Dragon 2 for a propulsive landing on the Red Planet.
However, the mission has been refocused to 2020, the next optimal Mars transfer window, according to SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell during a recent media event at KSC’s 39A.
It was not mentioned – nor foreseen – that SpaceX would almost immediately replace the Mars mission with this lunar flight. There was also no sign that private individuals had inquired to SpaceX to fly on the mission.
“We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year,” noted SpaceX on Monday. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission.
“We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.”
The two unnamed passengers have already made a “significant deposit” to fly on the mission that will be a free trajectory flight profile that will take the Dragon 2 close to the surface of the Moon before reaching out up to 400,000 miles into deep space before returning to Earth.
It is likely to end with a water landing, with Dragon 2 utilizing its parachutes during its early life before refining its SuperDraco propulsive landing technology.
This – according to one source – was one of the reasons the Red Dragon mission was moved to the next Mars transit window.
Mr. Musk also intimated the two paying customers are not the only private citizens interested in flying on Dragon 2, which points to a commercial model that may be part of the larger funding plan – such as “stealing underpants” – to help pay for the Interplanetary Transport System.
The intriguing question is how this announcement will play in the corridors at NASA centers.
One Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) source refused to provide a technical answer to questions relating to Mr. Musk’s statement, opting only to point at SpaceX’s “lengthy delays” relating to previous flagship announcements, such as Falcon Heavy schedule.
SpaceX has consistently gone to great lengths to say how much NASA has helped the company over the years, a point it also makes to help dilute the notion of competition between them and the government agency. SpaceX made the point again during Monday’s announcement while emphasizing its own stature via the internal development of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
“Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible,” SpaceX added in its statement.” NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding.”
Mr. Musk himself said he was not battling against SLS and Orion, although he also claimed he did not know what the schedule was for NASA’s next flagship rocket. SpaceX has – over the years – provided a mix of faint support and indifference towards SLS. It has never openly criticized the vehicle.
A NASA HQ source claimed they were not informed about the announcement ahead of Elon’s comments on Monday, although he believes Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and President Trump’s NASA “Landing Team” was briefed, which in turn – the source claimed – was why Mr. Lightfoot asked NASA to conduct a study into accelerating the schedule towards crewed missions on Orion.
The current plan is to launch SLS and Orion on an uncrewed mission around the moon in 2018 (Exploration Mission -1/EM-1) – although internally that is fully expected to slip into 2019 – while a second repeat mission, involving a crew (Exploration Mission -2/EM-2) – is to take place no earlier than 2021.
NASA is now studying how to launch a crew on the maiden flight – in around 2019/2020 – although the current plan remains firmly in place during for the interim.
With SpaceX now saying they aim to launch people on an EM-2 style mission, in 2018, NASA will be fearful of political questions that will obviously point to the vast difference in how much a SpaceX mission costs when compared to the billions being pumped into the SLS/Orion program. At the same time, it appears SpaceX may be shaping NASA’s own short-term exploration plans.
Mr. Musk also added he would be willing to prioritize a NASA crew on the first Dragon 2 lunar mission if they asked, which would bump the private citizens to a future mission.
However, should NASA opt fly its own astronauts on the first crewed deep space mission in decades on a vehicle other than Orion – which has been under development for over 10 years – the political questions may become far more awkward.
It later provided a statement that “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 U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.”
“For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.
“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”
(Images: SpaceX; and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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