During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Elon Musk said SpaceX will launch two private investors on a roughly 1-week mission around the moon.
“I hope this gets people really excited about sending people into deep space again,” Musk said.
The two passengers aren’t ready to disclose their identity or other details about their background, Musk said. However, he did say the two prospective space tourists knew each other, were private citizens (though not anyone “from Hollywood”), and were “very serious” about making the trip.
“They have placed a significant deposit,” Musk said.
While Musk would not disclose the mission’s cost, saying it was confidential, he did estimate the price at a “little more” than a crewed flight to and from the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Dragon 2 spacecraft. According to Space News, each of those missions will cost about $300 million.
“There’s a market for at least one or two of these per year,” Musk said, adding that lunar flyby missions might eventually comprise 10-20% of SpaceX’s revenue each year in the future.
Musk did flag one important caveat, however.
“If NASA desires to have this mission,” he said, “NASA would take priority.”
NASA, which has contracted SpaceX for crew and cargo flights to the ISS, told Business Insider in an emailed statement that it “commends its industry partners for reaching higher.”
However, NASA seemed to indicate that it plans to continue developing its own hardware for deep-space missions.
“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 said.
How Musk’s private moon mission might play out
The as-yet-unnamed crew will ride a fully autonomous version of the company’s Dragon 2 spacecraft — apparently with no overt human pilot.
“There will be training for emergency procedures,” Musk said.
SpaceX plans to launch the mission in the fourth quarter of 2018 aboard the Falcon Heavy — a new “super heavy-lift” rocket system the company hopes to debut in a maiden flight sometime in 2017.
The private moon mission would depart from Launchpad 39A at Cape Canaveral — the same pad Apollo astronauts launched from in the 1960s and 1970s.
From there, Musk said, they will “skim the surface of the moon” in a wide loop, go out past the moon, travel into deep space, and then return to Earth.
When asked by reporters about the risk of the mission, Musk said the two-person crew was “certainly not naive.”
“I think they’re going in with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to minimize that risk, but it’s not zero.”
A stepping stone to Mars
While many details about the mission have yet to be released — including the names of the space tourists, the profile of their mission, whether or not the Federal Aviation Administration will give SpaceX its go-ahead, what emergency preparations and support would be available, and so on — the immediate reaction from at least one industry expert was positive.
“As we’ve come to expect, this is an exciting announcement from SpaceX that will move the ball forward on space exploration,” Phil Larson, a former Obama administration space policy advisor and former SpaceX employee, told Business Insider in an emailed statement. “It will also act as a stepping stone for the eventual human exploration of Mars, which is everyone’s ultimate goal.”
Larson, now an assistant dean at Colorado University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said Musk’s timing is opportune “as a new administration grapples with their plans for NASA.”
“This goes to show that America’s commercial space industry is ready to go beyond Low Earth Orbit, not in 10 years but now,” he said.
“It makes sense for NASA to partner more and more with these companies in innovative ways, leaving the government to focus on basic space technology research needed to lower the cost of doing business in space.”
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