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SpaceX plans to send tourists around the Moon in 2018. Here's why that may not happen

Posted by Jason Davis

03-03-2017 6:00 CST

Topics: commercial spaceflight

On Monday, SpaceX announced plans to send two space tourists around the Moon next year. The audacious, week-long flight would take place using a Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft and be the first time humans have been beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. 

Some media outlets have compared the mission to Apollo 8, humanity's first crewed mission to lunar space, which happened in 1968. In terms of traveling to a vantage point where Earth is a small blue-and-white orb dangling in darkness of space, that's certainly true. Apollo 8, however, slowed down and entered orbit, whereas the Crew Dragon would use a "free-return" trajectory, whipping around the far side of the Moon to slingshot back toward Earth.

A more accurate mission comparison, therefore, is Apollo 13.

After an oxygen tank explosion crippled the spacecraft of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise during a trip to the Moon in 1970, NASA had to abort the mission. Unfortunately, it's practically impossible to turn around when you're halfway between the Earth and the Moon, traveling 11 kilometers per second; the only option is to use the free-return maneuver. 

It's hard to say whether these two SpaceX customers could work themselves out of an Apollo 13-esque crisis. They have asked not to be identified; all we can really say about them is that they must have a lot of money. SpaceX isn't saying how much the duo will pay for tickets, but some available cost comparisons include the amount tourists have paid to fly on Russian rockets (at least $20 million), the average cost of a SpaceX or Boeing seat to ship an astronaut to the ISS ($58 million, according to one report), and the amount NASA currently pays Russia for Soyuz seats ($80 million).

Risk and price tag aside, what are the chances SpaceX can actually pull off this bold mission in 2018?

Not good—and here's why.

Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon


Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon
An artist's concept of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon lifting off from Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A. The same combination of vehicles would be used to send tourists around the Moon.

A quick analysis of past announcements shows SpaceX misses major milestones by about 2 years.

SpaceX is well-known for its ambitious timelines. To be fair, they're in good company on this front: many spaceflight firms, and also NASA, are similarly guilty of underestimating how long major projects will take. That's why NASA's science programs—and more recently, its human spaceflight programs—use a metric called the Joint Confidence Level, or JCL, to calculate the odds something will be delivered on time based on available funding levels. In short, NASA doesn't commit to a launch date until a JCL analysis says there's a 70 percent chance it will hold. 

I went through SpaceX's past press releases and official statements to see if I could quantify the average delay time for major milestones. I found that on average, SpaceX misses publicly stated deadlines by an average of 2.1 years. 

Here's the dataset. Some well-known examples of these delays include the first crewed Dragon flight (originally promised in 2014, but yet to occur) and the Falcon Heavy (originally promised for 2013 or 2014, but yet to launch). Again, to be fair, an analysis of other NewSpace companies or NASA would likely turn up similar results. But that doesn't make it any less true.

The GAO thinks SpaceX may not be certified for ISS crew rotation flights until 2019. 

On February 16, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying SpaceX and Boeing might not be certified to fly ISS crews until 2019.

Before NASA signs off on SpaceX for astronaut transportation, the company must conduct two demo flights of its new Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first will be an uncrewed test flight, which SpaceX expects to occur in November. The second will take place with two astronauts, and SpaceX says the mission will be ready to fly in May 2018.

The GAO is skeptical of those dates.  Among the reasons: SpaceX plans to make two more upgrades to the Falcon 9 this year, before showing NASA the rocket's design is finalized and stable—prior to the November uncrewed test flight. There's also an ongoing debate about the company's plan to fuel the rocket with astronauts aboard, and questions about the significance and mitigation of cracks found in Falcon 9 engine turbines.

SpaceX Preisdent Gwynne Shotwell recently told reporters at Kennedy Space Center she was confident the first crew flight would occur in 2018. If that happens in May as scheduled, NASA certification could come between July and September, followed by the first official ISS crew rotation flight.

Where, exactly, the Moon tourist mission would fit in to that schedule is unclear, considering the company has a backlog of other missions to fly after last year's launch pad explosion. In theory, SpaceX could proceed with the flight anytime—it's just a question of whether they are potentially willing to risk looking bad in the context of their NASA partnership.

Flying tourists after the first paid ISS crew rotation flight would seem to be the most prudent; NASA has been without the capability to launch its own astronauts since the space shuttle retired in 2011. The agency made a big bet on commercial crew providers after canceling the Constellation program in 2010. As of last year, NASA still provides the bulk of SpaceX's revenue, and in Monday's announcement, SpaceX went out of its way to thank the agency for shouldering most of the development cost of Crew Dragon.

NASA, meanwhile, has been forced to lay the groundwork for using Russian rockets to reach the ISS in 2019 (ironically, the seats are being purchased through Boeing) in the event SpaceX and Boeing crew flights are delayed further.

Floating toward the Atlantic


Floating toward the Atlantic
A Crew Dragon floats toward the Atlantic Ocean under its three main parachutes following a pad abort test in 2015.

The current record for introducing a new launch vehicle and subsequently using it to fly humans to the Moon is 13 months. SpaceX has about 18.

The Crew Dragon tourist flight requires the Falcon Heavy, which is expected to make its first test flight this summer. That gives SpaceX a maximum of 18 months to hit its 2018 deadline.

The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket operating since the Saturn V, which debuted during Apollo 4 in November 1967. That flight sent an uncrewed Apollo capsule to an altitude of 17,300 kilometers, causing it to slam back into the atmosphere at 11.1 kilometers per second, putting the capsule's heat shield through the same stresses it would encounter upon returning from the Moon. In December 1968, 13 months later, the first crewed Saturn V flight sent Apollo 8 to lunar orbit.

Unlike Apollo 8, SpaceX's tourists won't need the capability to slow down and enter lunar orbit, and then speed up again to come home—so that simplifies things. But it also doesn't sound like SpaceX is planning to make a high-velocity Crew Dragon test flight. By the end of 2018, the spacecraft may have returned from low-Earth orbit a couple times, but those reentries will have been slower—about 7.7 kilometers per second.

All in all, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and SpaceX isn't providing more details.

The first hint of this announcement came on Sunday, Feb. 26, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted "SpaceX announcement tomorrow at 1pm PST." On Monday, 1:00 p.m. came and went, and at about 1:25, a flood of tweets from various media outlets broke the Moon mission news. SpaceX released a brief written statement a few minutes later. It was soon revealed that a select group of reporters had been invited to attend a press teleconference with Musk. The call was apparently brief, lasting less than a half hour.

It's not uncommon for organizations, both private and public, to control the flow of information by preferring certain media outlets over others. NASA, however, makes their briefings publicly available—even though not everyone gets a chance to ask questions, everyone gets to hear what others are asking. Additionally, NASA public affairs officers generally work with reporters to answer followup questions (even if the answers turn out to be non-answers).

I sent an email to SpaceX about all this, asking if they'd consider inviting more reporters to their briefings—even with less-preferred outlets in a listen-only mode—or whether they had an audio recording of the most recent teleconference, or whether they'd be willing to answer a few written questions about the Moon mission.

The answer was no. 

Which brings me back to the premise of this article: Based solely on publicly available facts, it seems unlikely this mission will happen in 2018.

Objectively speaking, SpaceX has revolutionized the launch industry. They have made incredible leaps forward in technology while re-energizing the world about spaceflight in a way that NASA has, in some ways, failed to do. They broke the monopoly on launching classified U.S. payloads. They may one day send humans to Mars.

For a space company that has only been around for 15 years, that's extraordinarily impressive. But in terms of media relations and gut-checking ambitious timelines, there's always room for improvement.

See other posts from March 2017


Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight


Tony Mach: 03/03/2017 06:51 CST

I look forward to reading the upcoming critical SLS/Orion article – I certainly found the past critical SLS/Orion articles here very informative.

Tony Mach: 03/03/2017 07:02 CST

I am trying to find the article criticizing the recently started intention of putting astronauts on the *very* *freaking* *first* SLS flight, an never flown rocket, but came up empty handed – didn't you publish one here? You surely would have criticized that? Or not? Can that be? You seem to be very fond of SLS, as you hope it will do much for Solar System exploration (or so I hope that you hope). So, have you considered what a failure on the first flight might do, if it were crewed? I mean in addition to the lost opportunities by the enormous financial resources siphoned off by the SLS pork barrel to space project?

Tony Mach: 03/03/2017 07:10 CST

SpaceX is putting an crewed flight around the freaking Moon financially into the reach of (arguably filthy rich) private persons – and you moan from the peanut gallery that the date might slip, while you ignore the $Billions poured into SLS. What are your interests here? Honestly? Lowered prices for access to Space, it sure ain't.

Jason Davis: 03/03/2017 10:08 CST

Tony, please see our comment policy about flooding the comment section with multiple comments. I do indeed have an article about the SLS/Orion crewed flight in the works. Look for it in the next week or two. Since SpaceX captured the news cycle with their announcement, this took precedence. You might be interested in our investigative Horizon Goal series on SLS and Orion: My interests are objective reporting and the truth. I am pro-space. If I have stated anything incorrect in this article, please let me know.

Brian Schmidt: 03/03/2017 10:23 CST

Great points, Jason. While being hopeful, I wonder if there's a deadline that SpaceX didn't miss. At the same time, glancing at that deadline table that Jason made, it looks like the delays were worse for far-off deadlines. This moon trip is pretty soon, so maybe the delay will be below average. I'm assuming SpaceX doesn't need to meet Nasa certification for trave to ISS to do the independent lunar trip - is that right?

KC: 03/03/2017 03:29 CST

"I am trying to find the article criticizing the recently started intention of putting astronauts on the *very* *freaking* *first* SLS flight" IIRC Yes there was apparently an internal NASA memo asking for assessment of that possibility, but no such announcement has been made. (Sounds like a bad idea to me)

Lucas: 03/03/2017 06:43 CST

Tony makes some good points. SLS/Orion is a make work project for former shuttle contractors/ corrupt politicians who are funnelling same part of this money into their own pockets as per business as usual. SpaceX is on the verge of gaining a monopoly in launch, no one will be able to compete once they start reusing their boosters. The first and main point of the article is completely invalid. Yes you are right many SpaceX flight systems have been delayed relative to their original schedules. Dragon V2 is a flight system not a "milestone" and it has been delayed many times before but now it is finally nearly ready. Once it has been proven once their is no reason paying customers people can't fly. Dragon V2 is inherently safer than the shuttle due to it's abort system. Why is the planetary society/Nye/Tyson so sceptical of mars colonization and specifically SpaceX's mars plans? Bill Nye compares mars to antarctica implying that there is no reason to colonise. Mars actually has lots of things that Antarctica lacks like a proper day nights cycle and potentially lots of untapped valuable ores. It is inconceivable that a whole planet with geological processes such as mars lacks valuable mineral ores, as well mining with be easier on mars due to low gravity. Sagan would be disappointed in you guys, you should change your name to Astronomy Club.

Red: 03/03/2017 07:16 CST

Jason I hope you're wrong about SpaceX's delaying a return to the Moon, but I won't deny you point out SpaceX's delays validly. Ambitious goals often are harder to achieve than expected. However, I believe SpaceX is going to beat NASA to BOTH Luna and Mars, with the later this coming decade. SpaceX has the advantage of thinking ahead and remaining more focused compared to NASA, which sadly is perpetually bogged down to politics. SLS has had nearly 10 years of hard work with no results, and Orion is a mess of its own. We'll be seeing an interesting paradigm change in the near future.

okan170 : 03/04/2017 12:37 CST

Note: the Crew on EM-1 is currently a study they were told to look into and is not a statement of intention or a real plan.

TobyM: 03/04/2017 09:56 CST

I'm probably missing something, but why can't SpaceX use the upcoming Falcon Heavy test flight to also test a Dragon 2 on a cis-lunar flight and re-entry? They would then have cleared one of the main hurdles to the tourist flight - a hell of an adventure holiday btw!

Galileo7: 03/04/2017 08:39 CST

When I first heard the announcement, the timeline seemed overly ambitious to me. Now that I read that there won't be a high-speed re-entry test of the crewed capsule first, and that they're still wanting to fuel the manned vehicle on the pad, well...maybe some are willing to take on that level of risk, but I sure wouldn't! Just seems foolhardy to this ol' aerospace engineer.

dannyR: 03/04/2017 10:02 CST

Nicely reasoned argument. I have learned that is enough to simply write that Musk will not meet this deadline to provoke at least one angry response. On one point I think he has already answered the re-entry velocity problem and is confident the vehicle is quite robust for that. That said, I object to the final concessive tone and matter. The future of the booster-phase is in air-breathers. Rocketry is for the upper stages. Musk's gee-whiz success is like making the most advanced square-wheel design, albeit with a certain retro-Buck-Rogers appeal: lands on its tail, holy cow, right outa the comic books and stuff! Finally, and this is the cold water: nobody is going to Mars or even orbit Mars. By the time that is remotely possible, it will be done by AI and robots. The advantages in weight, speed, safety, financial return (where applicable), make this inevitable. We ain't going anywhere; China probably won't even send people to the moon. They’re practical, and that isn’t practical.

humblejunkie: 03/05/2017 11:32 CST

I hope to put the bathtub curb into perspective with these new technological delays. these are ambitious goals set by an ambitious person who has triumphed over the odds before, even if just barely. I agree the odds are they are wrong about the scheduled launch dates due to the wall of obstacles that lie before them. I also agree with the statement that in order to achieve daunting goals, aim high. with the ambitious mood set i also hope these stories are reaching the ears of future brilliant minds, and inspire them. thanks for the read.

Galileo7 : 03/05/2017 01:24 CST

You wouldn't want to take on the risk of being on a rocket when fueled... would you take on the risk of going into a rocket with no launch escape system? Because that's what NASA did for decades. Dragon has a launch escape system that should be able to withstand a pad failure. I'd much rather be on the latter than the former. Where did you read that there won't be a high-speed reentry test?

cpushack: 03/05/2017 05:43 CST

"The Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket operating since the Saturn V, which debuted during Apollo 4 in November 1967" Actually the Energia was more powerful then the FH, though it did only have 2 flights.

Karen: 03/05/2017 07:39 CST

@cpushack: Energia/Buran's LEO payload was 30 tonnes. Energia the booster could launch 100 tonnes, but not to orbit. For example, the Polyus orbital battlestation was 80 tonnes, but a good chunk of that weight was the rocket designed to get it the rest of the way to orbit.

Stephen: 03/07/2017 05:52 CST

@Red: “I believe SpaceX is going to beat NASA to BOTH Luna and Mars” Um, NASA has already put people around and on the Moon. It first landed there in July 1969. SpaceX can’t beat what has already been done! As for Mars, only time will tell. @Red: “Ambitious goals often are harder to achieve than expected.” If goals are harder to reach ”than expected” then either somebody hasn’t done their homework properly or those goals were never realistic in the first place. @Red: “SpaceX has the advantage of thinking ahead and remaining more focused compared to NASA, which sadly is perpetually bogged down to politics.” NASA has put people on the Moon, has put in orbit two space stations around Earth, and has sent unmanned robotic spacecraft around or past every planet in the solar system (including Pluto). Just what exactly has SpaceX done? How many astronauts has SpaceX put into Earth orbit, let alone sent anywhere else? As for that “thinking ahead and remaining more focused” claim, says who? SpaceX is like a closed book. Who knows what they think about, let alone how they think. All we have to go on are press releases.

Paul_Wi11iams: 03/07/2017 06:55 CST

p1/2 quote from article "I sent an email to SpaceX about all this, asking if they'd consider inviting more reporters to their briefings—even with less-preferred outlets in a listen-only mode—or whether they had an audio recording of the most recent teleconference, or whether they'd be willing to answer a few written questions about the Moon mission. The answer was no. " This looks like underestimating the rift between New Space and Old Space. Planetary seems to have got catalogued "Old Space", as one can see from a comment or two here. It looks as if the simple fact of sending a couple of tourists around the Moon has set off a conscious or unconscious reaction about far wider and long-term philosophical issues. Moving from centralized space agencies to independent space flight could, by historical analogy, look like protestants challenging papal authority As we're all space believers, It might be worth skipping the worst parts of history and start doing space ecumenism. Avoiding opposing caricatures, Nasa is *not* just ageing civil servants wasting money on futile studies. New space is *not* about nuking the martian south pole for fun. "Space ecumenism" (no Google hits, so I just coined the word it seems) doesn't mean plastering over the cracks, but it does mean going back to basics. My angle would be to think of the "interests" of a hypothetical life form surviving on, say, Mars. Its best survival prospect would be being discovered by us and maybe being used generate chimeric Earth/Mars entities for terraformation of the planet. that would fit with Richard Dawkin's "selfish gene" concept. As for conservation of martian geological information after the end of the solar system, the best advantage would also be being discovered by us and stored as samples and data. Of course other angles are possible. Had a technological life-form evolved on Mars /...

Paul_Wi11iams: 03/07/2017 07:03 CST

p2/2 ... and not Earth, then it would be sending probes here in view of "marsaforamation". So we're talking about basic characteristics of life extending to colonize new environments. It would be interesting to see a Planetary article that analyzes the New Space philosophies from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos and others in terms of its own standpoint on planetary conservation among others. For example Musk thinks in terms of "backup Earths" and Bezos in terms of moving industry to space in view of protecting Earth. Musk moved from making life multiplanetary to making just humans multiplanetary. Many questions: How does humans-only colonization fit with the ecosystem concept ? How does science fit into colonization ? Science itself often being a spin-off from military R&D (example: nuclear science was driven by the atomic bomb), is there such a thing as "clean" science ? How will science be done in an interplanetary context with labos on the Moon and Mars ? What will be the latency between human presence on Mars and the destruction of chemical/biological information ? Is it even feasible to wall-in the Earth from a colonization point of view ? Isn't natural solar radiation the best protection possible against biological pollution on Mars ? What about the *very *long term when life dies out in the solar system and moves to the stars with or without a martian heritage ? cf I think Carl Sagan would have been most disappointed if Planetary did not address such issues and move forwards in its thoughts over time. @KC: 03/03/2017 03:29 CST "I am trying to find the article criticizing the recently started intention of putting astronauts on the *very* *freaking* *first* SLS flight" @ Tony Mach, I too find myself doing repeated posting (≠flood) because of the lack of an **edit function** that it would be good to have here if possible ;)

Batty: 03/08/2017 03:45 CST

Hey Jason, Casey, Matt & Bill..and Emily, I think you may not be thinking outside the square here. I think I know who the private citizens are. Great work on the podcasts...I love them very much! Bob

Bryan See: 03/12/2017 07:01 CDT

There's another reason why sending tourists around the Moon won't happen in 2018. It is because of growing religious extremism and social movements that's both anti-science and anti-technology, as well as a possibility of a third World War and a Russia-led global order started by President Vladimir Putin with eternal military might, corruption, stagnation and criminality. In fact, the US government has been infiltrated by Christian extremists backed by Russia and its government and now proposing budget cuts to its space program. This is what Elon Musk has been warning all about more than a year that such may shut down his manned space missions beyond LEO, and worse, will fulfill the prophecy of Baba Vanga made in 1979: "Everything will melt away like ice yet the glory of Vladimir, the glory of Russia are the only things that will remain. Russia will not only survive, it will dominate the world." This is being realized right now.

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