The private company SpaceX has announced that it plans to send two passengers on a mission beyond the moon in late 2018.
If the mission goes forward, it would be the "first time humans have traveled beyond low Earth orbit since the days of Apollo," as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce told our Newscast unit.
The two private citizens approached the company about the idea and have already paid a sizable deposit, CEO Elon Musk told reporters in a conference call. These private individuals will also bear the cost of the mission.
"I think this should be a really exciting mission that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again," Musk said. As the company puts it: "This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them."
The plan for this private mission is to send the two people to loop around the moon and then return to Earth. They will not land on the moon's surface.
As Nell explained, SpaceX "builds rockets and capsules that have taken cargo to the International Space Station for NASA." SpaceX plans to use its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is set to launch its first test flight this summer. Next year, prior to the moon mission, it plans to start crewed missions by taking NASA astronauts up to the ISS.
That's a lot of ground to cover before this mission can take place, as George Washington University's John Logsdon, an expert in space policy and history, told Nell.
"Introducing this into the mix raises a fair amount of questions, but it's an exciting prospect," Logsdon said. "SpaceX is notorious or notable, depending on how you want to think about it, for setting very ambitious schedules and usually not meeting them." He added that historically, SpaceX has eventually followed through on what it said it was going to do.
The moon mission vehicle is designed to be automated, Musk told reporters, but the passengers will be trained in emergency procedures in case there is a problem.
The individuals involved in the mission "are entering with their eyes open knowing that there is some risk here," Musk said.
NASA has congratulated SpaceX on "reaching higher." In a statement, the agency said:
"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."
SpaceX has seen some recent setbacks, including multiple delays launching and docking a capsule on the International Space Station earlier this month. It succeeded last week.
SpaceX said other potential customers have also expressed interest and it expects to launch further missions.
And it's worth noting that this is far from the most ambitious goal that Musk has proposed. Last September, he unveiled plans to colonize Mars by sending at least 1 million humans there to establish a self-sustaining city.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
SpaceX says it will launch the first private moon mission next year. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Elon Musk is the founder of SpaceX. He says the company was approached by two individuals who want to go to the moon. He won't name them, but says they're not movie stars.
ELON MUSK: Nobody from Hollywood.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They've put down a substantial deposit. For a week, they'll fly in a capsule that loops around the moon and swoops close to its surface before returning to Earth. Does that sound slightly dangerous?
MUSK: Yeah. I mean, I think they are entering this with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: After all, no one has been to the moon since NASA's Apollo program ended in 1972. And the big SpaceX rocket that would launch this trip hasn't even flown yet. Its first test is scheduled for this summer. On the other hand, SpaceX was the first private company to send a spacecraft to the space station. It now carries cargo to the station.
Next year, it's supposed to start taking NASA astronauts there as well. Can it do that for the first time and a moon mission in the same year?
JOHN LOGSDON: SpaceX is notorious - or notable, depending on how you want to think about it - for setting very ambitious schedules and usually not meeting them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: John Logsdon is a space historian at George Washington University. But even if SpaceX misses some deadlines, this moon mission could happen.
LOGSDON: So far, eventually SpaceX has done everything it says it was going to do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So moon lovers just have to wait and see. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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