Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the rocket company SpaceX, says that two private individuals have hired his firm to fly a manned mission around the moon in late 2018.
Musk said that the two individuals had not given his company permission to release their names, but that they knew each other and have placed a “significant deposit” with the company.
The individuals won’t pilot the spacecraft themselves; it will be controlled by autonomous systems and from the ground. Musk did say if something went wrong, they might have to intervene using the machine’s controls. They will begin a special program of health and safety training.
The mission would take approximately a week, as the rocket loops around the moon into deep space and returns to earth, a distance of approximately three to four hundred thousand miles.
The mission will be flown on the Dragon 2 spacecraft that SpaceX is developing to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX made a point of thanking the space agency in its official blog post on the news. SpaceX’s moon mission—unlike the ISS flight—will be launched on the as-yet-unflown Falcon Heavy rocket that the company intends to launch for the first time this summer.
“The Dragon 2 and the Falcon Heavy are the enablers,” Musk said in a conference call with reporters. “This should be a really exciting mission, that will get the world really excited about deep space.”
The Dragon 2 is currently scheduled to fly its first unmanned mission late in 2017, and to fly astronauts for the first time in the second quarter of 2018, though government auditors fear that any unexpected delay could throw off that schedule.
Musk’s tweet announcing the announcement prompted breathless speculation of what news the ambitious space company would deliver. The news is the second major moon mission in the news this month, after NASA said it is considering accelerating plans to fly humans around the moon forward into 2019, a decision prompted by the Trump administration. Commercial space operators have been anticipating a return to moon missions since the transition.
SpaceX’s decision to announce a mission with a similar profile to NASA’s moon orbit, but at much lower cost, may only be a coincidence, but Musk made clear he was ready and willing to take it on for the US government. He said the mission will cost about as much as one of the company’s crewed trips to the International Space Station.
“If NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, of course NASA would have priority,” Musk said. “[The space agency] would have priority in any lunar orbit mission.”
Musk stressed that this mission would, like the rest of the company’s work, play into its long-term goal of inter-planetary exploration.
“We’ll have to invest in deep space communication technology and that’s going to be important for future missions to Mars,” he said.