Jason DavisMar 03, 2017

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

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.Image: SpaceX

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.Image: SpaceX

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.

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