Fly me to (or around) the moon (Photographer: Don Miller).
Science

SpaceX reveals plans for circumlunar voyage

by Michael Maccallam

Since man’s first steps on the moon, our fascination with space exploration has grown to unprecedented heights. Times have changed since the race between the Soviet Union and the USA, but a new race is emerging between Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, a race that seems to have moved significantly in SpaceX’s favour with the recent news that two of its customers will be flying to the moon in late 2018.

The announcement was met with widespread enthusiasm, with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk saying that it will be “an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years”, walking in the footprints of the original Apollo astronauts. Following questions about how this immensely complicated mission would be carried out, Musk assured everyone that SpaceX has been working in co-operation with NASA in order to ensure a successful operation.

Speculations quickly arose about the identity of the two private citizens, but after Musk refused to reveal their identities, he soon said that “it’s nobody from Hollywood”, but that they do know each other. Despite their anonymity, we can most likely assume that they must be in a very financially stable position, as tickets for an opportunity like this will undoubtedly be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

The journey in late 2018 will be a chance to see how far innovations in space technology have come, with Musk being optimistic for the future, saying that the two will “travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them”. Although the trip will not involve a lunar landing, they will still receive full training, with Musk stating that “we expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year”.

When asked about the inevitable risks, he said that SpaceX will be doing “everything we can to minimise that risk, but it’s not zero”. The trip will involve a loop around the moon before skimming the surface and then going beyond, and is an important milestone in renewing our endeavours for space exploration, since no US astronauts have been sent to the moon since the 1970s.

SpaceX’s closest rivals at Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have suffered setbacks in their similar ambitions recently, when in 2014 their space vehicle was destroyed, and there is ambiguity surrounding when their paying customers will embark on their first flights. With such setbacks at Virgin, it seems clear that SpaceX will be the first commercial company to travel into deep space, a journey which hasn’t been made since the astronauts of the Apollo programme.

What has taken many people by surprise is the sheer timeline of these events. SpaceX have been successful with their Dragon shuttle delivering back and forth to the International Space Station, but it’s surprising how suddenly they are willing to make the jump to a circumlunar voyage. Unmanned tests will be conducted later this year, with the manned mission expected in late 2018, and time will tell if the mission fails, or if this marks a new age in space exploration.

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