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Image: Crew Dragon
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX says it’s making plans to send two private citizens around the moon late next year – using its yet-to-be-flown Falcon Heavy rocket and its crew-capable Dragon capsule, which is still under development.

The would-be fliers have not been identified, but they have already paid a “significant deposit” for the trip, SpaceX said today in its announcement of the mission.

The Falcon Heavy would lift off from SpaceX’s launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and put the Dragon spacecraft on a free-return trajectory that would loop far beyond the moon and then come back to Earth without any attempt at a lunar landing.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, telegraphed today’s announcement on Sunday in a tweet, but didn’t give any hints in advance about the topic.

Some had speculated that the announcement would focus on the spacesuits that are being designed for use on the Dragon. That speculation was sparked in part by Boeing’s spacesuit unveiling earlier this month. But the actual revelation was far more dramatic.

NASA is also considering a round-the-moon mission that could take place in 2019 or 2020, using its Orion capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System. Today’s announcement has the potential to set up a bit of a space race between SpaceX and teams of NASA contractors led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

“I’m not sure if we will be before or after, but I don’t think that’s the important thing,” Musk said in comments reported by ArsTechnica’s Eric Berger. “I think what matters is really the advancement of space exploration and exceeding the high-water mark that was set in 1969 by the Apollo program, and just having a really exciting future in space.”

Musk also said SpaceX would give NASA priority if it wanted to use the Falcon Heavy and Dragon for the first round-the-moon mission.

More than a decade ago, Virginia-based Space Adventures began offering a round-the-moon tour on a Russian spacecraft for two passengers. A year ago, Space Adventures said two customers had signed contracts and were hoping to fly by the end of the decade, at a price of $150 million a ticket.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin was once among the potential clients on Space Adventures’ list, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has said he was unsuccessfully courted for a round-the-moon mission.

There’s no indication that either of those folks have signed up for SpaceX’s trip. However, the complexity of the mission suggests that anyone taking a ride would have to have similarly high net worth, or know some high-net-worth individual who’s willing to foot the bill. (Musk wouldn’t say anything about the two spacefliers other than that they knew each other, and that they weren’t from Hollywood.)

Space Adventures is still offering the round-the-moon tour package. The company declined to comment specifically on SpaceX’s mission but voiced support for it. (Check the end of this story for the full text of Space Adventures’ response.)

SpaceX is due to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time this summer, and the company says it will start flying astronauts to the International Space Station on its crew-capable Dragon 2 space taxi sometime next year.

Musk told reporters that the Dragon 2 for the round-the-moon mission would have to be further modified to provide for deep-space communications, from a distance as far as 400,000 miles from Earth. He said the risk to the lives of the passengers would be minimized, but acknowledged that the risk is “not zero.”

SpaceX is also working on plans to send a robotic Dragon mission to Mars by as early as 2020, and send settlers to the Red Planet starting in the 2020s. The robotic mission, known as Red Dragon, had been set for 2018 – but earlier this month, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that project had to be postponed so the company could focus more fully on the Falcon Heavy’s debut and Crew Dragon testing.

Here’s the full text of today’s announcement from SpaceX:

“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.

“Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding. Falcon Heavy is due to launch its first test flight this summer and, once successful, will be the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V and more than double the thrust of the next largest launch vehicle currently flying.

“Later this year, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, we will launch our Crew Dragon (Dragon Version 2) spacecraft to the International Space Station. This first demonstration mission will be in automatic mode, without people on board. A subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly in the second quarter of 2018. 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. By also flying privately crewed missions, which NASA has encouraged, long-term costs to the government decline and more flight reliability history is gained, benefiting both government and private missions.

“Once operational Crew Dragon missions are under way for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth. Liftoff will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them.

“Designed from the beginning to carry humans, the Dragon spacecraft already has a long flight heritage. These missions will build upon that heritage, extending it to deep space mission operations, an important milestone as we work towards our ultimate goal of transporting humans to Mars.”

Update for 3:30 p.m. PT Feb. 27: A spokeswoman for Space Adventures, Stacey Tearne, sent GeekWire this statement reacting to SpaceX’s announcement:

“Space Adventures has been very supportive of SpaceX since the company’s inception.

“It is not our practice to comment on any particular Space Adventures client’s prospective or planned mission before the client has announced it personally, regardless of vehicle, destination, or mission timeframe.

“Our goal is to bring the experience of spaceflight to private citizens around the world, and so we would like to congratulate SpaceX and see this news as an exciting development for the industry.”

Update for 4 p.m. PT Feb. 27: NASA issued this statement on SpaceX’s plans:

“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher.

“We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

“For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.

“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”

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