Yesterday, Elon Musk announced a bold new SpaceX mission for 2018, flying two as-yet-unnamed passengers in a full orbit of the Moon. This will be the first entirely private passenger flight that’s ever been attempted, without the benefit of broader government support — an achievement with new possibilities and new dangers.
People have paid for the privilege of reaching orbit before — seven of them, in fact. Musk’s passengers will be going farther, slingshotting around the Moon, and they won’t be tagging along on an existing mission, either.
Of course, Elon Musk didn’t invent space tourism, and he isn’t proposing anything that’s beyond its current capabilities. Since 2001, a Virginia company called Space Adventures has offered multimillionaires the opportunity to hitch a ride on a Russian flight to the space station, ferrying seven people to the International Space Station over the course of eight years. It’s not clear Musk’s proposed Moon tour is beyond Space Adventure’s capabilities. The company is currently advertising translunar trips, but no one’s taken them up on it yet.
But while Space Adventures looks like a private space tourism business, it’s deeply dependent on Russia’s Rocosmos space agency, which entered the 21st century with both extra capacity and a desperate need for cash. All eight Space Adventures flights were made aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, built and operated by Rocosmos, giving the agency immense influence over the shape of space tourism. Space Adventures might be in the space tourism business, but Rocosmos isn’t, and Space Adventures could only sell what Rocosmos was willing to sell — which led to a falloff in flights after 2009. Space Adventures could only start booking again in 2013, after Rocosmos added an extra Soyuz spacecraft to its yearly manifest.
Roscosmos might have a lucrative sideline in ferrying millionaires to the space station, but its primary objectives are still that of a government space agency. Those objectives — conducting experiments, maintaining the space station — are what guides the group’s decisions on what missions to run and what spacecrafts to build. That’s the logic that has guided crewed spaceflight since Gagarin, and Space Adventures flights haven’t changed it.
SpaceX is different. It’s building its own rockets and planning its own missions, beholden to no larger agency or mission. Companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have ventured in this direction, but they’ve never gone beyond suborbital flights — more of a high-altitude plane than a spacecraft. Outside of crewed missions, lots of fully private space companies have made a good business out of launching equipment and supplies into orbit. But human exploration is essentially uncharted territory for a private company, and for the time being, SpaceX will have the field to itself.
That opens up possibilities that go far beyond a flight around the Moon. The recently delayed Mars project is a perfect example. While it’s not without faults, the project is far more ambitious in scope than anything that could be accomplished by piggybacking on government rockets. It requires new ships, new crews, and a sustained commitment to supplying them. There are dozens of such projects — many of which are developed and debated within NASA — but and a private company trying to execute them is already changing the dynamic. What does a space program look like without the political constraints of government? We simply don’t know.
Not all of the possibilities will be pleasant ones. Government oversight has forced space agencies to be cautious, and without that caution, there are real concerns about safety. Virgin Galactic’s early flights led to a number of mishaps, ultimately resulting in the death of a test pilot in 2014. As SpaceX’s September explosion reminded us, launches are still unpredictable, and it remains to be seen how well private companies will safeguard passengers. The risks of a flight increase after launch, too, as passengers will be well beyond the reach of anyone on Earth.
Still, it’s hard not to feel excited. We’re at the beginning of a new era of spaceflight, and on the cusp of new milestones for humanity itself. What starts as an $80 million joyride could lead to a new era of spaceflight, with new technology and new priorities. It’s a world-changing idea. The question now is whether SpaceX will be able to live up to it.