by Jeff Cunningham
The other day, SpaceX released the following public statement:
We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.
I would hope that I shouldn’t need to give you all any more reason to geek out over the fact that we’re going back to the friggin’ moon before the next Olympics takes place, but to be fair, much like any of the other big announcements that SpaceX has made, there’s a lot to unpack in this. So, here are some salient points in no particular order.
“But they haven’t even flown the ship with people in it yet! These people seem to be a lot of talk…”
To be fair, this announcement comes on the heels of the unveiling of Musk’s, uh, grandiose vision for Martian colonization, so I can see how you’d get that impression. Remember, though, that first line of the press release: this wasn’t their idea. Musk and his company have always been laser-focused on the red planet, and I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard any of them even mention that our planet has a moon.
Plus, they absolutely are not biting off more than they can chew. By their own admission, the lunar flights completely depend on crucial test flights that will happen within the next year or so, namely, this year’s maiden flight of the Falcon IX-Heavy, and of course, the first crewed flights of the Dragon II. The key here, though, is that the technology more or less already exists, they’re just finishing up fabrication and final testing– like when you have essentially finished putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, and are on the final steps of the instructions where you evaluate whether or not you really need to put on that optional sticky foam stopper or other extra doohickey that came with it. Assuming these flights are successful, then everything will be in place without the need to do lengthy, costly R&D.
“So, they’re not landing on the moon, they’re just flying out to it and coming back? What’s the big deal about that?”
It’s a huge deal on many levels. To explain why, you have to understand the circumstances surrounding the last time this happened.
The first “lunar flyby” mission was Apollo 8, but it wasn’t intended to be. Originally, the mission was to play it safe and test the new lunar lander’s systems in Earth orbit, then come right back down. Suddenly, though, NASA was hit with two setbacks that posed a very real threat that they’d lose to the Soviets. First, that lander– in a scenario those of us who closely watch space flights are all too familiar with, it got bogged down with technical problems and delays. Secondly, the CIA came to NASA and passed along a disturbing rumor: the Soviets were about to launch a lunar flyby– meaning that, even if we landed men first, they’d still gloat and claim that they reached the moon first.
It’s desperate times like those that can bring out the best, and transform ordinary men and women into Big Damn Heroes. Rather than wait on or try to rush the lunar lander out the door, they collectively realized, “Wait a minute, we’re NASA, gorrammit. Screw it, let’s just do it first,” and completely restructured the mission from being a safe and relatively risk-free test flight to an all-in gamble that had three American astronauts suddenly tasked with scrambling at the last minute to prepare to become the first men to leave Earth and visit another world.
It was a truly daring gamble, and one that wound up paying off big. Many historians would say it’s what cemented the United States’ civilian space program in first place, and decided the ultimate outcome of the space race right then and there.
So, is the fact that private individuals are repeating that feat in the face of intense public criticism and mockery all on their own a fitting tribute to the accomplishment of Apollo 8? You bet it is. I can’t think of a better way to do it.
Flyin’ (Han) Solo
Part of the press release that the media has jumped on is SpaceX’s intent to do everything themselves— from medical evaluation of these independent astronauts to their training– instead of having NASA do it on the American taxpayer’s dime. This is another huge paradigm shift, from the people who brought you rockets that land themselves. This is the future we always dreamed of, where all men and women are free to seek their fortune among the stars; it’s the reason that space programs are started in the first place.
Well, So Long as We Have These Rockets…
These independent flights to the moon also have the unexpected benefit of filling a critical gap in SpaceX’s business plan, which up until now has consisted of:
- Make rockets way cheaper, like a fraction of what everyone else charges (check).
- Make a 21st-century spaceship that uses tech that isn’t older than we are (almost finished, launching next year).
- Offer to give NASA astronauts rides to the International Space Station, so that they save billions of dollars and literally everyone in the world wins for the rest of the station’s lifetime…
- …which is only another five years or so.
- 20 years later: Mars!
Point is, as wonderful as it is that they’ll be able to prop up the American space program and as important a role as they will play in our progress as a species, the ISS contract only represents so much business before the work runs out. Without it, their prime customer, they didn’t have much business case for the Dragon II– until now. With the advent of independently chartered lunar flights, they’ll be able to keep the lights on up there, plus prove that the ship really can tackle the rigors of deep space that it was designed for, and bridge the gap between the station’s mission and leaving for the red planet.
Lastly…do I really need to say it? We’re going back to the friggin’ moon. We’re doing it well before state agencies, no waiting on the Trump administration, or any other grand proposal that’s always perpetually “ten years away.” It’s not going to be stopped or held back by self-interests and politics, there’s not going to be any “funding issues” on the floor of Congress– a down payment has already been made, and there are others in line behind the first crew! It’s happening in our lifetime, before lots of youth alive today will graduate from public school. For them– and heck, even for diehards like me– it will finally become real and not just a story in the history books.
“Wait…what about you guys?”
There’s no downside to this, not where Take Back the Sky’s campaign to have the first manned Dragon II spaceship named after Serenity from the sci-fi cult classic Firefly is concerned. We knew from the moment we started this that it was a long shot. Now that Musk has had the opportunity to name a couple of craft, it’s apparent that he has different tastes. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell is an avid “Browncoat” (a fan of Firefly), but we have no way of knowing just how much say she has in naming the ships.
So, we see no need to change our plans. We have every intention of keeping our word and getting as many people like you to write letters and sign petitions online and in person at comic-cons before presenting them to SpaceX corporate headquarters prior to the first manned flight of the ship and its official naming. Once we get to that point, we’ll re-evaluate and decide where to go from there. In the meantime, we see nothing but good coming from an announcement like this, and the buildup of publicity leading up to our return to the moon bringing the Dragon II into the public eye like never before (not that we get tired of explaining to fellow con-goers, “Here’s the way it is”).
I’m just overjoyed at the prospect of society and culture returning to the optimism it once had of, “We just went to the moon. If we can do that, then nothing’s impossible!” Heck, who knows– it’d be totally awesome if, after Con Man finished a third season, we were to see another fan campaign like the well-intended “Help Nathan Buy Firefly” campaign aimed at chartering an additional lunar flight via crowd-funding to send stars Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion to the moon and livestream the entire thing! It’s one thing to send men to the moon, it’s one thing to send celebrities into space, it’s another to send two men like Fillion and Tudyk who are to social media what Da Vinci and Michelangelo were to oil paintings. Just imagine: Every last tweet, Vine, and Instagram would be solid gold— like literally, because they’d be worth millions of dollars each! Fillion is already known to engage in moderately risky pastimes like scuba diving, and could totally talk Tudyk into it, if the latter feels skittish about it.
Anyway, we plan to stick to our campaign to name the ship, but if any of you get that “let Alan and Nathan do a reality TV show from space” thing up and running, let us know, because you could definitely count on us to pitch in for that. Like, a lot of money. Wouldn’t you?