SpaceX may still rocket 2 mystery customers around the moon — here's what Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell says the trip could be like

NASAThe crew of a SpaceX moon mission would take in views of Earth and the moon similar to this Apollo 8 photo.

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, is poised to launch people to the moon for the first time in more than 45 years.

In February, SpaceX successfully test-launched a Falcon Heavy rocket, making it the world’s most powerful operational launch system.

As proof of its oomph, Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight shot Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster – with a spacesuit-clad “Starman” dummy in the driver’s seat – toward Mars.

However, Musk hopes to use his launcher to send two people around moon.

“We’ve been approached to do a crewed mission beyond the moon, from some private individuals. And they’re very serious about it,” Musk told reporters on a call in February 2017. “They have not given us permission to release their names yet. But they have placed a significant deposit.”

Musk originally hoped to launch the mission before the end of 2018. However, SpaceX has since delayed any moon mission to no earlier than mid-2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. There’s also a chance it may switch to an still-in-development launch system called Big Falcon Rocket.

If Falcon Heavy does end up launching a crew, they’d ride a fully autonomous version of the company’s Crew Dragon – a space capsule slated to fly its first NASA astronauts in early 2019. The lunar mission would take a flight path similar to the one flown by Apollo 13, though ideally under more favourable circumstances.

To get a sense of what that trip will be like and what it means, Business Insider called former astronaut Jim Lovell, who piloted Apollo 8, the first lunar voyage, in 1968 and commanded the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Lovell said in March 2017, referring to SpaceX’s moon-mission plans. “There’s a sense of satisfaction that they’re still thinking about that.”

This has been updated with significant new information. It was originally published on January 4, 2018.

The first SpaceX lunar mission may launch on Falcon Heavy: a 230-foot-tall rocket that the company flew for the first time in February 2018.

Sources: Business Insider

Falcon Heavy has three boosters and 27 rocket engines — three times as many as Falcon 9, which is SpaceX’s go-to launch system. This generates 5 million pounds of thrust, which can cart 70 tons of payload into orbit around Earth.

Elon Musk/SpaceX via TwitterSpaceX’s three-booster Falcon Heavy rocket in a hangar at Cape Canaveral in December 2017.

Falcon Heavy didn’t dethrone NASA’s now-retired Saturn V rocket — that machine remains history’s most powerful. That Apollo-era vehicle was about 130 feet taller and could lift twice the payload.

Bloomsbury AuctionsA Saturn V rocket prepares to launch an Apollo mission.

Two Falcon Heavy launches would be enough to launch an Apollo-style moon-landing mission.

Source: Ars Technica

SpaceX lunar crews will “skim the surface of the moon, go quite a bit further out into deep space, then come back to Earth,” Musk said.

The six-day lunar circumnavigation flight will closely resemble Apollo 13’s path around the moon — hopefully minus the growing and palpable threat of death, Lovell said.

AndrewBuck/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)The flight profile of Apollo 13 and a timeline of when disaster struck and the astronauts rescued the mission.

“We had a very crippled spacecraft. … We weren’t too sure that we we’re going to get back,” Lovell said of Apollo 13. “On one of Elon Musk’s flights, if everything is working fine, and everything is going to be automatic, then they can sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery.”

NASAJim Lovell’s formal portrait for the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

SpaceX would drive lunar voyagers out to Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s the same pad NASA used for the Apollo missions, along with most of its space shuttle missions.

Dave MosherSpace shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

After taking an elevator to the top of the service structure, the crew would see their Crew Dragon capsule.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)SpaceX’s Dragon v2 capsule at an unveiling ceremony in 2014.

Each moon traveller would wear a simple spacesuit in case of pressure loss.

Elon Musk/SpaceX; InstagramSpaceX’s astronaut spacesuit next to a Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA astronauts say they look better and are more comfortable than older suits.

SpaceXNASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita Williams tests mock-ups of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and spacesuit in April 2018.

Source: Business Insider

A Crew Dragon capsule is big enough to fit up to seven people. But many of these seats would be replaced with basic supplies for a lunar mission — and a toilet that astronauts say is “not the best.”

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The interior of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 or Crew Dragon capsule showing seats for five astronauts, though the craft can support up to seven.

Source: Business Insider

“Two people in close quarters for a week is nothing. I mean, look at submarine crews that spend a couple months underwater,” Lovell said. “Look at Scott Kelly, who was up there for a whole year orbiting. Two people just going around the moon in a spacecraft? That is very comfortable, a piece of cake.”

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

Screens above the reclined seats would show computer readouts, the spacecraft’s location, and other important information.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The interior of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 or Crew Dragon capsule showing status screens.

Should any of Crew Dragon’s automated systems hit a snag, space-flyers could punch commands into the control panel.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)The interior of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 or Crew Dragon capsule showing a control panel.

Laying almost flat, the crew — hearts racing — would buckle up and await a countdown for launch.

Elon Musk/SpaceX; InstagramSpaceX’s astronaut spacesuit inside a Crew Dragon capsule.

Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines light almost simultaneously. The force would rattle the spacecraft, then press the crew deeper and deeper into their seats as the rocket accelerates.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

A little more than two minutes later, the crew would feel a bump as the rocket’s two side boosters detach.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

The boosters are designed to land themselves for later reuse, saving SpaceX millions of dollars.

Sources: SpaceX/YouTube,Business Insider

Out the window, the crew would see Earth below.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

Another bump would signal that the core booster — also reusable — has detached. Next, the crew would feel a powerful jolt as the second-stage engines fired up, further propelling the mission to roughly 24,000 mph, which is fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity and venture out to the moon.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

Outside the Crew Dragon’s windows, they’d see the brilliant blue marble of Earth…

NASAEarth from space as seen by Apollo 8 astronauts.

… Slowly shrink during the roughly 239,000-mile-long trip to our planet’s sole satellite.

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrEarth as seen from the Apollo 8 spacecraft.

Lovell said seeing the Earth this way deeply changed him. “You begin to realise how small and how significant the body is,” he said.”People often say, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die.’ In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born.”

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrEarth as seen from the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

Source: Business Insider

The moon, meanwhile, would grow larger and larger over about three days.

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe moon as seen through a window of the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

Asked if he had any advice for the first lunar crew, Lovell said: “I’d tell them to take a camera and enjoy the scenery, and live the experience. Knowing that this has been done in the past, they just have to have faith in SpaceX that what they’re building is going to be very successful.”

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe moon as seen from the Apollo 13 spacecraft during its trans-lunar coast.

Soon, the moon would fill more of the window…

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe moon as seen through a window of the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

… Then completely dominate it.

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe lunar surface as seen through a window of the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

The crew would skim about 100-200 miles above the moon, which is closer than the space station orbits Earth.

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe lunar surface as seen from the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

On the day side, they’d see now-famous craters in close detail…

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe lunar surface as seen from the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

… Along with a pockmarked mess of smaller craters caused by meteorites pelting the moon over billions of years.

NASA via Project Apollo Archive/FlickrThe lunar surface as seen from the Apollo 8 spacecraft.

Looping around from the far side of the moon, the crew would see the Earth “rising” over the airless lunar surface.

NASAThe famous ‘Earthrise’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts during their trip around the moon on Dec. 24, 1968.

Fast-forward a few days, and the Crew Dragon would be getting close to Earth once more. The capsule would detach from its support trunk and begin its descent.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

Ablative material lining the bottom of the Crew Dragon would insulate the spacecraft from the searing heat of atmospheric reentry, and also slowly burn away, carrying away heat to further protect the capsule.

“Coming back from the moon, they will be hitting a velocity of close to 25,000 mph. And so they’re going to have to hit quite a small, pie-shaped wedge with respect to the atmosphere, and make a safe landing,” Lovell said. “If they come in too low, they will skip out, like a skipping a stone on water – they’re gone. And if they come in too steep, sudden deceleration will make ’em a fiery meteor.”

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

Closer to the ground, thrusters would fire to slow down the Crew Dragon and guide it to landing.

Source: SpaceX/YouTube

But SpaceX may opt for a set of parachutes and an ocean splashdown, like the Apollo missions.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)SpaceX’s Dragon v2 floats to Earth during a parachute test.

SpaceX originally hoped to launch its first lunar voyage by the end of 2018.

SpaceX/Elon Musk via TwitterSpaceX’s three-booster Falcon Heavy rocket in a hangar at Cape Canaveral in December 2017.

Source: SpaceX

But SpaceX has since said it will launch the moon mission only after “operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA.” That may not happen until the summer of 2019.

SpaceX plans to launch astronauts to and from the International Space Station in a Crew Dragon capsule. But the first crewed launch for that mission, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, was recently pushed back six months to December 2018. A recent Government Accountability Office report suggests the actual date for a first crewed flight may now be February 2019.

“There’s a market for at least one or two” voyages around the moon per year, Musk said. Each lunar voyage may cost upward of $US230 million, perhaps more than $US300 million.

Source: Business Insider

“SpaceX is still planning to fly private individuals around the moon and there is growing interest from many customers,” James Gleeson, a company representative, said in June 2018.

Dave Mosher/Business InsiderSpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches toward space for the first time on February 6, 2018.

Source: Wall Street Journal

It’s uncertain if SpaceX will still try to use Falcon Heavy for its private moon missions, or wait until it completes the Big Falcon Rocket: a monstrous, 348-foot-tall booster-and-spaceship system.

SpaceX/YouTubeAn illustration of SpaceX’s and Elon Musk’s Big Falcon Rocket system launching toward space.

Sources: Space News, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider

Hypothetically, an entirely reusable BFR system — a single Big Falcon Spaceship sitting atop a Big Falcon Booster — could send 100 people and 150 tons into low-Earth orbit with one launch. However, the ship may require refuelling with follow-on launches.

SpaceX/YouTubeAn illustration of Elon Musk and SpaceX’s BFR docked to the International Space Station.

Source: Business Insider

Lovell said that SpaceX’s lunar joyrides aren’t that exciting to him; he’d rather see people do basic research to make spaceflight faster and safer. The astronaut also wants to see a permanent lunar outpost — though Musk has said he’d like to build a moonbase, too.

SpaceX/YouTubeAn illustration of SpaceX BFRs helping establish a lunar outpost.

Sources: Business Insider(1, 2)

“I guess eventually, things will come to pass where they will go back to the moon and eventually go to Mars, probably not in my lifetime,” he said. “Hopefully they will be successful.”

NASA/JPL-Caltech; Dave Mosher/Business InsiderAn illustration of Mars against the blackness of space.

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