Science

SpaceX's Plan to Send a Tourist to the Moon, Explained

The company announced that it has booked a private passenger on a trip around our lunar neighbour. Here’s what we know so far.Monday, 17 September 2018

By Nadia Drake
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in February 2018.

In recent weeks, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been making headlines for flirting with libel lawsuits, getting his car company Tesla investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over a tweet, and smoking weed on-air. Now, the provocative tech titan is teasing a big announcement on Monday related to his company’s adventures in rocketry.

“SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle—an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of travelling to space. Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17,” the company tweeted on Thursday.

So far, speculation has pointed toward a Japanese passenger as a result of Musk personally tweeting the Japanese flag emoji when replying to the question, “It’s you, isn’t it?”

SpaceX will reveal the name of the Earthling who has signed up for the trip at 9 p.m. ET. But wait: What’s the BFR? And why does this plan sound so familiar? We’ve got you covered.

So, yeah. What’s the BFR?

Like so many items in Musk’s inventory, this rocket has earned itself a somewhat loaded name. The company is going with the mundane Big Falcon Rocket, based on the name of the existing Falcon rockets in the SpaceX fleet—but the exact meaning of the “F” has been negotiable for a while.

Whatever you call it, Musk originally envisioned the BFR as the primary transport vehicle for Mars-bound Earthlings. With a first-stage booster that’s roughly 200 feet tall, 30 feet across, and with dozens of Raptor engines beneath it, the BFR would be legitimately quite large. It could send 150 tons into Earth’s orbit and thrust its partner spaceships (capable of carrying a hundred people) toward the smaller, redder planet next door.

In other words, it should be more than capable of reaching the moon, or cleaning up space junk, or ferrying people from one side of the planet to the other in about 30 minutes, all of which Musk says he’d like to do.

Didn’t SpaceX already announce a scheme for moon travel?

They did. In February 2017, the company said that an anonymous pair of space travellers had purchased tickets to the moon, on a flight that would see them loop around our natural satellite and then return home. It was supposed to happen in 2018, take about a week, and use the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon crew capsule. At the time, the Falcon Heavy had yet to fly, although SpaceX has done a successful test launch since then.

Cool! Is it happening?

Nope. Musk later announced that the trip has been delayed pending production of the BFR—and said that as of now, there are no plans to certify the Falcon Heavy for human spaceflight. Meanwhile, the Dragon crew capsule is still being tested, and NASA is projecting a test flight with the first commercial crew in early 2019.

OK. So how is this new plan different from the earlier one?

Well, when that first trip was announced, SpaceX kept the identity of the two travellers secret. This time, they say they will reveal who the passenger is and why that person wants to visit the moon. Aside from that, it’s still a flight around the moon using a rocket that doesn’t yet exist. And in place of the Dragon, the private passenger will be riding aboard the still-in-development Big Falcon Spaceship.

When might it happen?

It’s a total mystery so far. But given how long it takes SpaceX to design, build, test, and fly its rockets and crew capsules, we wouldn’t put our money on it happening any time soon. It’s also not clear how much the private moon passenger will be paying for the privilege. For now, the world will have to wait for more details when SpaceX is ready to deliver them.

 

This story was originally published on NationalGeographic.com

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