NASA vs. SpaceX, the public-private race to the Moon

On Feb. 27, SpaceX announced the company’s intentions to send a manned spacecraft — carrying two private party individuals, who are not trained astronauts — around the moon and back by the end of 2018.

The announcement brings into a focus a new sort of space race, a race between commercial space travel and traditional government civil programs. Should SpaceX be successful, the private mission could introduce the real possibility of humans returning to the vicinity of the Moon, before NASA.

SpaceX will launch a Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft with two paying customers on a private mission, however, the firm still remains under contract with NASA’s commercial crew program to send astronauts to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit using Crew Dragon and the smaller Falcon 9 rocket, beginning as early as next year.

NASA currently pays $80 million per ticket to send astronauts up on the Russian Soyuz rocket.

The government organization is also in advanced preparations to launch an uncrewed flight of its new Orion spacecraft, scheduled for fall 2018. Orion’s first crewed flight is scheduled for 2023, however, the company is maintaining an internal goal of having that flight ready for launch in 2021.

At the request of President Trump, NASA recently began a short study to evaluate the potential for including a crew on the first Orion flight. A decision to crew the flight would push the mission to 2019.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon command module atop its Falcon 9 rocket.

Of course, talking about flying to the Moon is one thing. Actually getting there is a completely different conversation.

Not insignificant is the fact that SpaceX are yet to officially fly the Falcon Heavy. The first test has been scheduled for later this year.

Making the step up from single-core launch vehicles to three-stage rockets like the Falcon Heavy is not a trivial transition. Ensuring the mechanisms of the vehicle operate in sequence, while staying together, then separating the stages — only when you seek to — is not an easy task. SpaceX will still presumably be required to address concerns raised by the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and others about plans for fueling the booster with crew already aboard the Crew Dragon capsule atop it. While private citizens may be ready and willing to assume the risk, the FAA might have different ideas.

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