Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX, a private rocket company, announced on the 27th. February that they will be sending two private citizens on a round the moon trip late in 2018.
SpaceX is probably the most successful private company launching into space, and has sent re-supply vessels (called Dragon) to the International Space Station, a feat it first performed on the 25.th May 2012. It began regular re-supply flight the following October. It has also launched satellites successfully into orbit.
The SpaceX Dragon.
The beauty about the Dragon is that it has been designed to carry not only cargo but people as well. It has yet to carry anyone but with NASA’s blessing they are now readying for the craft to start that part of its mission. The first test flight of the crew-ready version, the Dragon Version 2 will be un-manned and is currently slated for 2018 forming part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It will be launched to the International Space Station. Later in the year a subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly. SpaceX is currently contracted to perform an average of four Dragon 2 missions to the ISS per year, three carrying cargo and one carrying crew
SpaceX haven’t been without problems though; on the 1st. September 2016 the rocket exploded on the launch pad during a pre-launch test of the engines. The previous June, SpaceX experienced a major failure with one of its rockets when a Falcon 9 disintegrated en route to the ISS.
The rocket SpaceX use is called Falcon and unlike the rockets that sent man to the moon it is partly re-usable; the first stage returns to Earth landing vertically – almost like it was in reverse from take off. The rocket has completed this a number of times on a floating platform at sea and once on land returning to the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Where the rocket lands depends on the weight of the cargo that was launched, a sea landing is made after launching heavier items than a ground landing.
Falcon 9 returning to Earth.
SpaceX are working to a very tight deadline; to get the craft safe to launch people and then get them around the moon in the same year is going to big a big task. It took NASA 7 years, the loss of three crew mates ( a fire aboard the oxygen saturated cabin of Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal in January 1967 led to the deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee) and the development of new technology to send astronauts around the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission of 1968. It was not until 1969 and Apollo 11 that man first stood on the moon.
‘Earth Rise.’ Photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronauts.
If successful the two un-named astronauts will become the first ‘deep space’ travellers since the Apollo 11 crew. Their flight will take about a week, skimming the moon’s surface before flying past it and returning to Earth. The astronauts are funding themselves (estimates are that the cost of the moon flight will about $135 million dollars each) and will be given all necessary training before lift-off. Notwithstanding that, to learn all the systems, how to combat failures and how to react to emergencies in little over a year is going to be a massive task for them to undertake.
Despite the best training possible it cannot be overstated that this will be a risky venture. Once the craft is on its way to the Moon there can be no stopping and coming home if there is a problem. Whatever happens the crew will have to travel over 250,000,000 miles there and another quarter of a million miles back again. The reason for this is simple; the amount of energy needed to get to the moon, go round and return are huge, once the craft has the momentum it will not have enough fuel to slow it and change course for an early return to Earth. That burn is called TLI or Trans-Lunar Injection and is the point where they can’t change their minds!
The path to the Moon. (Image from Wikipedia)
The Dragon mission will not stop at the moon but fly around using what is known as a circumlunar trajectory or lunar free return flight. It uses gravity at the moon to cause the craft to return to the Earth. (See picture above.) The Apollo missions followed this sort of flight until Lunar Insertion orbit: achieved using rocket engines. Apollo used this trajectory in case of a major failure so that a stricken craft could return home without the need for extra engine firings.
Remember the problems that Apollo 13 encountered? There was an explosion of one of the oxygen tanks just two days after launch. They had to continue their journey but the lunar landing was scrubbed. They had to make repairs a carbon dioxide scrubbing machine so that the air they had could be re-cycled and re-used. On top of which they suffered from heat loss, limited power and a shortage of drinkable water. The astronauts got back by the skin of their teeth and required the ingenuity of ground crew, themselves and having material they could cannibalise to keep the life support systems going.
One notable achievement and a record which still stands – but could fall after the Dragon flight – was that the Apollo 13 crew travelled the farthest from Earth reaching a grand distance of 400,171 km or 248,655 miles.
However Elon Musk has stated that the two adventurers are well aware of the risks and are happy to take them.
Despite the risks, who wouldn’t want to be one of those astronauts on an adventure back to the Moon?