Space tourism is upon us.
SpaceX will launch a crewed mission beyond the moon for two private customers, according to an announcement made by the company Monday.
This will be the first time in 45 years humans will return to deep space, said the company in a news release, and will go “faster and further” than any humans before them.
SpaceX expects the mission to take place some time in late 2018, after it sends a crewed NASA Dragon 2 craft to the International Space Station.
“We have been approached by private individuals,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, on a call with reporters on Monday. “This is a private mission with paying customers” who have placed “significant deposits,” Musk said, but added that they have so far not authorized the company to reveal their names.
Private space travel could with crewed missions could be “a significant driver of revenue,” Musk said. “There is likely a market for at least one or two of these per year,” and the missions could contribute “something on the order of 10-20 percent of revenues.”
Musk also suggested that he would defer to NASA if the agency expressed interest in taking its own astronauts on the flight.
“NASA always has first priority,” Musk said, “so if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority.”
The mission will use one of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 capsules, which will be modified to allow communications in deep space. It will be carried by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is scheduled to make its maiden launch in summer 2017.
Musk said it would be roughly the cost of a crewed mission to the International Space Station, and that other flight crews have already expressed interest in later flights.
The mission would “do a long loop around the moon” and would take about a week. Musk estimated the craft would travel about 300,000 to 400,000 miles.
“It would skim the surface of the moon, go quite a bit further out into deep space” and then return to Earth, Musk said.
“There is some risk here,” he said, and added that the hopeful passengers are not “naive” about the dangers. SpaceX will begin holding health and fitness tests later this year. “We will do everything we can to minimize this risk, but it is not zero. They are coming into this with their eyes open.”
The Dragon 2 is the craft SpaceX has designed to carry humans, whereas the Dragon craft it currently uses is meant only for cargo.
SpaceX plans to send one uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule to the ISS in the fourth quarter of 2017, followed by the crewed Dragon 2 flight to the ISS in Spring of 2018. The moon mission is expected to take place a few months after that.
“There will be quite a lot of experience with Falcon 9 and Dragon 2,” before the crewed moon mission, Musk said, adding that the Falcon Heavy is essentially a Falcon 9 with two extra boosters, and that the Falcon Heavy rockets are also scheduled for several launches over the next several months.
To complete the mission, the company will have to invest in deep space communication technology, which will also be important for the company’s planned trips to Mars.
The Dragon 2 will be capable of operating autonomously throughout the whole flight, but the passengers will be trained in emergency procedures.