SpaceX to Announce First Customer for Trip Around the Moon

SpaceX to Announce First Customer for Trip Around the Moon


Someone has booked a trip around the moon on a SpaceX rocket, and the details — including the identity of the passenger — are to be revealed Monday evening at an event at the company’s Los Angeles-area headquarters.

SpaceX is scheduled to stream the announcement beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.

The mystery passenger is to ride a yet-to-be-built rocket known as the B.F.R. The expensive trip — which would cost at least tens, if not a couple of hundred millions of dollars — would follow a looping path around the moon without landing, similar to the journey taken by NASA astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968. But when this flight might occur is uncertain.

The company’s founder, Elon Musk, has spoken of “aspirational” hopes that test flights of the spacecraft’s upper stage — where passengers would eventually ride — could begin as soon as next year and that the full rocket could make an uncrewed flight to Mars as soon as 2022.

SpaceX’s technological achievements are significant, including the landing, recovery and reuse of rocket boosters that have typically been discarded after a single flight. But Mr. Musk’s forecasts of SpaceX’s timelines have usually turned out far too optimistic.

But when one of the divers, Vernon Unsworth, disparaged the effort, Mr. Musk suggested, without evidence, that Mr. Unsworth was a pedophile. On Monday, Mr. Unsworth announced that he was suing Mr. Musk for defamation.

By comparison, SpaceX has been an oasis of calm, launching satellites and spacecraft without incident for most of the year.

This is actually the second time that SpaceX has announced that it will fly tourists to the moon and back.

In February last year, Mr. Musk said that two people had put down a deposit for a cruise around the moon and that it would occur late this year. However, those two were to fly aboard the Falcon Heavy.

With the modernization of electronics leading to smaller satellites and the greater lifting power of newer versions of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, the market for the Falcon Heavy is dwindling. (The Heavy has yet to make a second flight, although SpaceX lists the United States Air Force and satellite companies as future customers.) Mr. Musk said in February that SpaceX would not go to the expense and effort of making the Falcon Heavy suitable for human passengers.

At the same time, SpaceX has begun work on the B.F.R., its next-generation behemoth rocket, more powerful than the Saturn 5 that NASA used for the Apollo missions. The rocket is intended to replace both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy and is ultimately designed to take 100 people on a journey to Mars. (The “B” stands for “big;” the “R” is for “rocket.” In public, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, states its full name as “Big Falcon Rocket.” Mr. Musk, as well as the company’s news releases, remain ambiguous about what the “F” stands for.)

Even if the Falcon Heavy had been ready for the moon tourists, development of the SpaceX capsule for taking astronauts to space, which would have been required for a Falcon Heavy trip, has also been delayed. The first flight of that spacecraft ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station is now scheduled for next year, and watchdog agencies within the government say further delays are possible.

Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA has been relying on Russia to carry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, but that contract ends in November 2019.

The B.F.R. is far more ambitious than the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy — larger, more powerful, and fully reusable — and thus even more likely to encounter technological snags, and the design of the B.F.R. is still evolving.

Two years ago, Mr. Musk described a gigantic, 40-foot-diameter rocket, then known as the Interplanetary Transport, before unveiling a slimmed-down B.F.R., which is only 30 feet wide.

The image in the SpaceX tweet shows larger fins on the B.F.R. than what had been seen previously, giving it an appearance more reminiscent of NASA’s retired space shuttles.

On Twitter, Mr. Musk was asked if this was a new version of the B.F.R.

“Yes,” he replied simply.

It is not yet known if the passenger is one of the two who had put down a deposit last year or whether SpaceX would sell additional seats on the spacious vehicle.

So far, seven people have paid for a trip to space, riding on a Russian Soyuz rocket for short stays at the International Space Station. (One person, Charles Simonyi, has made two trips.)

No tourists have gone to orbit since 2009. Other companies including Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, are looking to start selling suborbital trips — rides that cross the boundary into outer space — before coming right back down, offering a few minutes of weightlessness.



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