SpaceX’s tourist mission is boldly ambitious, improbably timed and ludicrously priced

With SpaceX’s announcement that it will be sending two people into space for what seems to be a princely sum, it establishes itself once more as insanely ambitious and quite probably the foremost space company. We consider the issues the mission faces, and how it looks set to continue to establish space as a playground for the super-rich

SpaceX has announced that, for a “significant amount of money”, they will send two private citizens for a weeklong trip around the Moon. The mission is planned for spring next year, and will see the passengers, who are currently anonymous, launch inside a Dragon capsule atop the as-yet-untested Falcon Heavy rocket.

The launch, if on deadline, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Americans’ first-ever orbit around the Moon. Moreover, it will place SpaceX several years ahead of tests for NASA’s Space Launch System, intended to carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit, and dramatically ahead manned testing.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” SpaceX said in a statement Monday.

Space tourism beyond low-Earth orbit

Images courtesy of SpaceX

This is not the first case of space tourism. Dennis Tito famously paid $20m for a weeklong trip to the International Space Station in 2001, but this new mission is significant for its schedule, cost and the potential to firmly establish SpaceX as the foremost private space company.

Firstly, although Elon Musk would not disclose the precise amount the couple had paid, he estimated the mission’s cost to be slightly more than a crewed flight to and from the ISS aboard a Dragon 2 craft.

According to Space News, each of those missions will cost about $300m.

While a trip around the moon is certainly more impressive than a visit to the ISS, it’s worth noting how much this reinforces that space tourism will be, for the foreseeable future, the sole province of the super-rich.

SpaceX’s scheduling challenge

This of course, is all assuming that SpaceX can successfully stick to its schedule.

Musk isn’t known for his timekeeping and given that the Falcon Heavy rocket will only have its first test launch this summer, a mission schedule of next year seems overambitious.

Add the fact that that just last week a crewless Dragon had to abort its rendezvous with the ISS due to a glitch, and the explosion of a rocket in September 2016, it’s somewhat hard to believe that this is a schedule SpaceX will stick to.

NASA’s response

However, even assuming that the mission is pushed back a year or two, it is likely to beat out NASA. The company’s success will no doubt endear them to the business-focused Trump administration but, it seems, may also be of benefit to the US space agency itself. Throwing the slyest shade possible, NASA has essentially said that they’re happy for companies like SpaceX to handle the Moon because it lets them focus on more important things.

In a statement regarding the mission, NASA said: “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.”

Space: the rich’s playground

Given the Trump administration’s expressed enthusiasm for private space companies, it’s probably a good thing for SpaceX and the like to pull off missions like this; they’re almost certain to receive government support. However, much as it is early days, we do still need to deal with just how much of a pattern this sets.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model

Skipping the low-earth orbit stage entirely, SpaceX is basically saying that as long as you’re ludicrously rich, space is your playground. And if that becomes the expectation, then it makes it somewhat more unlikely that ordinary people will become the focus of future space tourism.

From a business mentality, however, it certainly makes sense. Space missions are expensive and if someone offered me several hundred million dollars to get them into space I’d certainly accept. However, it speaks of a worrying business- to-idealism balance that could well retard the development of space as a viable travel destination for ordinary people.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model.

If this mission is successful, we can only hope it serves instead as inspiration to make it viable for those not appearing on the Forbes rich list.

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