Hawthorne-based SpaceX will pioneer the space-tourism market and inch closer to its goal of landing on Mars when it takes two people on a weeklong cruise around the moon and into deep space late next year, CEO Elon Musk announced Monday.
Roughly scheduled for late 2018, the journey would be the commercial company’s first contracted private sightseeing trip to orbit.
Two people offered up more than $60 million for the opportunity to be the first private citizens launched into space on one of the largest rockets ever made. SpaceX has not released their names, but said they will fly without a crew.
“This will be a private mission for paying customers,” Musk said during a teleconference Monday with reporters. “I think this should be a really exciting mission that I hope gets the world really excited about sending people into space next year.”
The announcement comes as SpaceX intensifies its focus on developing its new Falcon Heavy rocket, which will use three Falcon 9 160-feet-tall first-stage boosters to get off the ground.
The Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 54 tons of cargo into low-Earth orbit — more than double what can be carried by the Falcon 9 rocket, which has been launched on 30 missions for NASA and commercial clients. Most commercial deliveries have been for weather and communications satellites.
Both the Falcon Heavy and its main competitor, Boeing’s heavy-lift Space Launch System for NASA, are now being vetted for crewed launches. The Space Launch System is designed to lift 70 metric tons into orbit. While the Falcon Heavy won’t lift as much, it will be reusable and, therefore, cheaper.
Meanwhile Amazon.com owner Jeff Bezos’ Washington-based rocket company, Blue Origin, is working on a reusable heavy-lift rocket named New Glenn. Blue Origin hopes to give customers the “astronaut experience” on space tours before 2020.
Virgin Galactic, which has manufacturing and design offices in Long Beach, also is marketing space tours on its SpaceShipTwo. The company, owned by billionaire Richard Branson, has sold 700 tickets already for trips into orbit lasting just a few minutes.
But, if SpaceX accomplishes its celestial goals this year and next, it will be far ahead of competing commercial space flight companies.
Musk said Monday that he anticipates that space tourism will soon account for 10 to 20 percent of the company’s revenue.
“I think it could be a significant driver of revenue,” he said. “There’s likely a market for at least one or two of these per year.”
Path to Mars
The first uncrewed Falcon Heavy flight is scheduled later this year from its pad at Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will be followed by a crewed mission six months later, in May 2018, according to company statements.
The Falcon Heavy’s private circumnavigation of the moon will follow the first crewed flight in late 2018.
Ultimately, Musk hopes the Falcon Heavy will be the first commercial rocket to land on Mars. Once trips on the giant rocket are affordable enough and Mars is ready for colonization, Musk envisions selling tickets for less than $200,000 each to the Red Planet.
“The goal, from SpaceX’s founding in 2002, has been to accelerate the advent of space exploration (and help create) a self-sustaining population on Mars,” Musk said.
Passengers on the planned private moon trip will fly together in a Dragon 2 spacecraft perched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket without a crew.
Musk said the spacecraft’s communications gear needs to be upgraded for the trip into deep space to ensure passengers can talk to Earth throughout the journey.
“This would do a long loop around the moon. We’re still working up the exact parameters,” Musk said. “This would be approximately a weeklong mission. It would skim the surface of the moon, go quite a bit farther out into deep space and then loop back to Earth.”
The rocket will log up to 400,000 miles on its journey, he said.
NASA weighs in
Musk did not say whether the two passengers are pilots or have any flight experience, but noted that SpaceX would soon begin preparing them with “extensive training” for their trip skimming the moon’s surface.
“We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year,” SpaceX officials said in a company statement. “Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow.”
But if NASA intervenes in the mission — such as suggesting that astronauts go instead of private citizens — Musk said he would defer to the government agency.
NASA responded to the news with a cheery message commending “its industry partners for reaching higher.” But the agency also said it expects Musk’s target launch late next year to stretch to 2019.
The statement reminded readers that NASA developed much of the technology that now informs commercial spaceflight, and has invested heavily in SpaceX and other private rocket makers.
“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,” the statement reads.
“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.”
Musk said concerns about flight risk and failures, such as SpaceX’s devastating Sept. 1 rocket explosion, are overblown.
“Our success rate is quite high,” Musk said. “We’ll do everything we can to minimize the risk, but it’s not zero.”
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