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With its Moon announcement, did SpaceX kick off the first public-private space race?

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SpaceX is sending a bold message

SpaceX shocked the spaceflight community yesterday by announcing a new ambitious goal for 2018: sending two people around the Moon. The two passengers are not NASA astronauts; they are, instead, wealthy tourists, who have already put down a “significant deposit” for the trip. If SpaceX pulls this mission off, it will be the first private company to take civilians beyond lower Earth orbit.

The mission also mimics a possible NASA plan. A few weeks ago, the White House asked NASA to look into the possibility of putting people on the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the giant rocket NASA is building to take astronauts into deep space and, hopefully, onto Mars. That’s a change to the original SLS flight plan, which was for an uncrewed launch in 2018. NASA is now considering a crewed flight before the end of 2019 instead, which would take passengers on a round trip around the Moon.

Now with SpaceX’s announcement, it seems as if another space race is brewing between the US public and private sector: to fly around the Moon rather than land on it. If so, that’s good news for the US, which will have new ways to access space. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the US has been forced to rely on Russian rockets to get people to the International Space Station. But now, America is poised to have two entities — SpaceX and NASA — that can take people beyond orbit and in the vicinity of the Moon.

“It is a great idea for America to have two totally different ways to send people to the Moon, and if this works, then America has multiple ways of doing that,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge.

SpaceX’s move may have bigger implications. Rumors has it that the new administration wants to return to the Moon; a few key space advisors have expressed interest in getting rid of redundancy at NASA: if you have two rockets that can do the same thing, focus on the rocket can get the job done more efficiently. SpaceX’s announcement suggests the company may be able to do what NASA can do, possibly for less money. The mission may serve as a bold advertisement that SpaceX’s vehicles could serve as viable replacements for the vehicles that NASA is building.

“It’s a particularly opportune moment to announce this as a new administration comes in and grapples with their plans for NASA,” Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama and a former representative for SpaceX, tells The Verge. “It goes to show America’s commercial space industry is ready to go not just to the International Space Station but beyond Earth orbit.”

A rendering of NASA’s Space Launch System.
Photo: NASA

It’s hard to miss the similarities of NASA and SpaceX’s missions; after all, both involve a giant rocket carrying a crew capsule around the Moon. For NASA, the rocket is the SLS and the capsule is the Orion, which has been in development for over a decade now. SpaceX’s rocket is the Falcon Heavy — a larger version of the company’s Falcon 9. The Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown yet, though SpaceX says it will be launched for the first time this summer.

The space tourists will ride in the Crew Dragon, a modified version of the company’s Dragon cargo capsule that’s used to take supplies to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX has been updating the Dragon to carry people as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on American-made vehicles again. The Crew Dragon will send astronauts to the ISS for NASA before the Moon mission.

There are a few key differences between the NASA and SpaceX programs. When it’s complete, the SLS will be the superior rocket. While the Falcon Heavy will supposedly be able to carry nearly 120,000 pounds to lower Earth orbit (LEO), the final iteration of the SLS will be able to carry nearly 290,000 pounds to LEO. But perhaps the key difference is cost. One launch of the SLS is expected to run $1 billion, though NASA is hoping to lower that number eventually. A Falcon Heavy launch, on the other hand, is supposed to start much lower at $90 million. It’s unclear how much those price tags will increase for Moon missions, but it’s possible that SpaceX’s lunar mission could cost a lot less than a crewed flight of the SLS and Orion pair.

Cheaper launches are attractive to a few key players involved in the NASA transition, who have hinted that the space agency’s vehicles are too expensive. During the presidential campaign, one of President Trump’s space advisors, Bob Walker, laid out a preliminary outline for the new administration’s space policy, focusing on NASA’s partnerships with commercial spaceflight companies. Specifically, Walker’s plan called for identifying space vehicles that could do the same things — e.g., the SLS and Falcon Heavy — and focusing on the more efficient option to explore space.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Photo: SpaceX

A key player in NASA’s transition team, Charles Miller, has called for a battle between NASA’s vehicles and commercial ones. On January 23rd, Miller wrote a memo to Newt Gingrich, obtained by the The Wall Street Journal, calling for NASA to "hold an internal competition between Old Space and New Space" to determine the best way to return to the Moon. “Old Space” is NASA’s approach of space exploration: big-budget programs in which the agency has extreme oversight of the design and manufacturing of space vehicles. “New Space” is the emerging method for how NASA works with the private sector, a more hands-off approach. In that case, NASA purchases services from a private company, usually for a lower cost, without as much insight into how the vehicles are built or operated.

If SpaceX does pull off its Moon mission before NASA does, and for a much lower cost, it’s a very loud message that New Space may be just as capable as Old Space — and maybe even more efficient. And that could potentially influence how the new administration shapes NASA’s policies and partners with the private sector.

“[It] goes to show the new [NASA] team is looking at new ways to do things in space,” says Larson. “I don’t know if they’re looking for this kind of partnership or not but it presents a new opportunity for them that a private company will do something like this.”

Still, it’s unlikely that NASA’s SLS and Orion are completely going away. Both SLS and Orion are broadly supported by Congress, with representatives pledging to keep the programs alive and fully funded. Just this month, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a large organization representing more than 70 business and organizations in the area of commercial space, endorsed the SLS.

NASA’s future Orion capsule.
Photo: NASA

SpaceX often fails to meet its deadlines, too. The company’s Falcon Heavy was originally supposed to debut in 2013 or 2014, but its launch has been repeatedly pushed back. (The first flight is supposed to come this year.) And SpaceX says it will launch people on the Crew Dragon for the first time in 2018, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggests Crew Dragon won’t be certified to carry people until 2019. Since SpaceX will only do its Moon mission after the vehicle is certified, its current timeline may be overly ambitious.

There’s one more thing: safety. In the past two years, two of SpaceX’s rockets exploded, one during launch and one during a fueling procedure on a Florida launchpad. Experts have also questioned some of the company’s design practices. One advisor to NASA expressed concern over SpaceX’s plan to fuel the Falcon 9 with people on board, calling fueling a “hazardous operation” that shouldn’t be done anywhere near humans.

But if this is a space race between NASA and SpaceX, it appears to be a friendly competition. Yesterday, NASA expressed its support for SpaceX’s new endeavor, saying that the agency “commends its industry partners for reaching higher.” And SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX would not be able to do the Moon mission without the financial support it has received from NASA. The SpaceX mission may even help NASA; it may provide a good argument not to put people on the first flight of the SLS. The reason to put people on the first SLS flight is “to try to do something bold and aggressive and fast,” says Muncy. “And now Elon’s going to do that. NASA should go ahead and develop their tools to go do exploration for Mars or whatever they’re going to do like they had planned.”

Still, if SpaceX’s Moon mission is successful, it’s a very public display of just how far commercial space has come. The private spaceflight sector is no longer on the fringe but is on the brink of matching NASA’s capabilities, and it’s something that would be difficult for the new administration to miss.

Update 2:11PM ET: Added clarification that SpaceX’s proposed mission would make it the first private company to take civilians past lower Earth orbit, not Earth orbit.