SpaceX Could Beat NASA Back to the Moon


SpaceX’s plan to fly two private citizens around the moon would put the company ahead of NASA’s planned crewed flight with its Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket.

Yesterday, SpaceX announced its intention to send passengers on a crewed Dragon spacecraft, launched with a Falcon Heavy rocket, around the moon near the end of 2018. This would follow on the heels of the company’s robotic and crewed flights to the International Space Station, and an uncrewed Falcon Heavy moon trip.

NASA’s own mission, which would be the first crewed flight using the SLS and its new Orion spacecraft, is scheduled for 2021. NASA recently began an investigation into whether it could put astronauts on SLS and Orion’s first launch, scheduled for 2018 — but officials have said that a crewed version of that launch wouldn’t fly until 2019. Assuming SpaceX is on schedule, its fly-around would come first.

SpaceX going first “might change the acceptable-risk discussions NASA has with the ASAP [Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel],” Scott Hubbard, researcher in the Stanford University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told “I could imagine that if this independent entrepreneur has done it, and successfully identified the risk factors, it would be real information, not speculation.”

“Others might then ask about [the] need for SLS and Orion — but two suppliers are always better from a competition/cost POV,” he added via email. Hubbard worked at NASA for 20 years and ultimately led its Ames Research Center, and he currently chairs SpaceX’s independent Safety Advisory Panel for Commercial Crew, which focuses specifically on the design and risks of their program to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

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