SpaceX is sending private citizens on autonomous journey beyond the Moon

  • Faster and further into space than ever before
  • Next generation spacecraft goes into space and onward beyond the Moon
  • Yet another series of grand plans?
  • Journey to Mars will be difficult and dangerous
  • The new Golden Age of space exploration
  • Amazon to set up shop on the Moon
  • A moment of weightlessness and breathtaking views
  • Whose planet is it anyway and who gets the prime spot?

It’s been 45 years since anyone has been up there, but we’ll soon be doing it again. We’re going back to the Moon. Tech giants SpaceX (owned by Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) have accelerated the development of reusable rocket boosters, significantly reducing the costs of journeying to outer space and opening up avenues to explore the cosmos. SpaceX announced last week that it will send two private citizens – two people who know each other – on a week-long flight beyond the moon in 2018, a feat not attempted since NASA sent the Apollo up to the Moon almost half a century ago. This will bring the grand total of lunar travellers to date to 26.

The daring duo has already paid a significant deposit and will start health and fitness tests and training later this year. SpaceX did not mention anything about the cost of the Moon journey but said it was slightly more than a manned mission to the International Space Station. To give you an indication: for a trip on the Russian Soyuz rocket, NASA pays approximately $80 million.

Faster and further into space than ever before

The names of the two passengers have not been released yet but they are said to be ‘very serious about it’. Musk was even hesitant to say whether the two are men, women or even pilots. He did say that “It’s nobody from Hollywood.” Part of the SpaceX statement reads: “This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.” SpaceX is not doing this alone, by the way. The lunar mission is part of the tech giant’s ongoing partnership with NASA. Even though Obama scrapped plans for lunar missions in 2010, that hasn’t deterred the private space industry. Big players like Bigelow Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Blue Origin and of course SpaceX have been focusing most of their energies on numerous lunar transportation systems and habitats.

Next generation spacecraft goes into space and onward beyond the Moon

In 2012, SpaceX was the first private space company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The company is now working on the Dragon Crew capsule (Dragon Version 2), a next-generation spacecraft designed to take humans to the International Space Station. The Dragon Crew and Falcon heavy rocket will be launched from NASA’s former Moon pad. The first launch will have no people on board, but the subsequent mission will be manned and journey into space and onward beyond the Moon in mid 2018. The trip would take approximately one week, skimming the Moon’s surface, then travelling further into deep space and thereafter head back to Earth. The mission will not involve landing on the Moon.

 SpaceX Dragon Crew capsule floating in space above Earth
The Dragon Crew and Falcon heavy rocket will be launched from NASA’s former Moon pad.

Yet another series of grand plans?

Since Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, many bold announcements have been made, and the lunar mission plan is yet another in a series of crazy SpaceX announcements. Musk’s ambitions proclamations often attract mockery from skeptics who are of the opinion that the tech giant moves way too fast in an industry where caution is critical. Musk however says that SpaceX’s success rate is actually quite high, despite two of his rockets exploding recently. He maintains that the company is on track for its first crewed mission to the moon in the middle of 2018, which is approximately six months prior to the private lunar journey. Musk acknowledges that the mission is dangerous but that the passengers know that there are real risks. “They are entering this with their eyes open and they are certainly not naïve.” Former deputy administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, doubts that SpaceX can pull this off within the next few years. He says the earliest it could happen is 2020, and that would be fantastic.

Journey to Mars will be difficult and dangerous

SpaceX is also working on a Red Dragon that is meant to journey to Mars around 2020, without people on board, land and carry out experiments. The unmanned journey to the Red Planet is meant to become a regular cargo route that runs every 26 months. This will be followed by the ‘Interplanetary Transport System’ which will take people to Mars in eighty days. The ultimate aim is to build a sustainable colony there, consisting of a million earthlings, in order to avoid extinction and make humans a multi-planetary species. Musk said “the journey to Mars will be difficult and dangerous.” He is however confident that people will still sign up because “there are people who want to be pioneers, just like with the establishment of the English colonies.”

The new Golden Age of space exploration

Full reusability of a space rocket could reduce the cost of rocket launches by a third and is critically important in order to gain access to space. Elon Musk asserts: “If we can figure out how to reuse rockets the way we reuse airplanes, we will revolutionise access to space.” Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post and founder of private space firm Blue Origin agrees and calls these technologies – and more specifically, his New Shepard reusable rocket – “the Holy Grail of Rocketry.” He believes that we are entering a new Golden Age of space exploration and that one day all rockets will be equipped with landing gear. Reusable rockets means faster progress in research, exploration and commercial spaceflight. Blue Origin is expected to start crewed test flights of the company’s flagship rocket and plans to commence paying passenger journeys as early as 2018.

Amazon to set up shop on the moon

SpaceX’s bold announcement to fly two citizens on a tourist journey around the moon sparked statements from Jeff Bezos about Blue Origin’s interest in developing spacecraft that can land at the Moon’s south pole where there is water ice and continuous sunlight for the generation of solar energy. Not only is water critical to our survival, the oxygen and hydrogen in water can also be transformed into rocket fuel, turning the Moon into a kind of fuel station – something future long distance space missions can take advantage of. Last year, Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its suborbital rocket the New Shepard five times. It flew just past the edge of space and then landed on a landing pad at Blue Origin’s facility in West Texas. A modified New Shepard rocket could be used to land on the surface of the Moon.

According to Bezos, his company could undertake the first mission to the Moon as early as 2020, but only in partnership with NASA. He said that he is excited about this and that he is ready to invest his own money alongside NASA to make it happen. He urges NASA leadership and the Trump transition team to support his Amazon-type shipment services to deliver cargo for experiments, supplies and habitats in order to create a lunar settlement by 2020. Their Blue Moon capsule would be able to load up to 5,000 kg of cargo and would be compatible with various launch vehicles. It would be used to keep astronauts supplied with tools, food and other important equipment.

A moment of weightlessness and breathtaking views

“It is time for America to return to the Moon, and this time to stay,” says Bezos. “A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this.” He added: “The moon could help propel humans even further into space, to destinations such as Mars: I think that if you go to the moon first, and make the moon your home, then you can get to Mars more easily.” Aside from sending goods to the Moon in 2020, Blue Origin is also still on schedule for sending astronauts into space at the end of this year, and then starting commercial flights with paying passengers as soon as next year.The private space firm is building six New Shepard spacecraft, designed to autonomously take six people to more than 100 km above Earth to experience an undoubtedly unforgettable moment of weightlessness and see our blue planet from afar, surrounded by the vast blackness of space.

Whose planet is it anyway and who gets the prime spot?

We may write nursery rhymes about the Moon, attribute all kinds of things to its phases but can a private company actually claim (a spot on or a piece of) it? According to the Outer Space Treaty, countries are prohibited from claiming celestial bodies. The treaty was established in 1967, out of fear that the US or the Soviet Union would launch nuclear weapons from space.

Wikipedia says: “The treaty explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet and that outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. However, the State that launches a space object retains jurisdiction and control over that object and is also liable for damages caused by their space object.”

The treaty not only bans ownership of the Moon, it also bans ownership of its surface, subsurface and any resources inside of it, by any person, organisation or government. The prime, sunlit southpole spot on the Moon – the one various tech giants have their eye on – is high-value real estate and parking a spaceship there could effectively mean ‘appropriating it’. However, the development of lunar property rights is definitely on the horizon. Space technology company Bigelow Aerospace, for instance, submitted a request with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to grant a ‘zone of non-interference’ for their future lunar operations. The firm manufactures inflatable habitats for outer space and is planning to build a lunar base. Their zone of non-interference request could be the first step towards the establishment of property rights on the Moon. While at this point we can’t really imagine the Moon becoming so crowded that it could lead to disasters and conflict, we still need to establish rules around lunar activities. Ultimately, figuring out how to share space peacefully will be a complicated undertaking.

We’re in the midst of a technological revolution and the trends, technologies, and innovations to look out for are all game-changers. They bring competitive advantages, increase the effectiveness of operations, make our daily lives more efficient, improve healthcare, and significantly change the landscape and beyond.

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