Earth Orbit Too Tame? Here’s A Chance to Fly Around the Moon

Earth Orbit Too Tame? Here’s A Chance to Fly Around the Moon

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is inviting applications from people who want to join him on a trip around the Moon on SpaceX’s Starship. Another billionaire is choosing companions to fly with him to Earth orbit later this year on a different SpaceX system, but Maezawa is going bigger. He bought all the seats on a SpaceX Starship for a week-long trip around the Moon in 2023. Anyone who signs up by March 14 will get further instructions on the selection process.

Maezawa, who likes to be called MZ, signed the deal with SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk in 2018 when Starship was still pretty much a gleam in Musk’s eye.

Today, Musk is making substantial progress on Starship with prototype testing at its facility in Boca Chica, TX, near Brownsville. Musk tweeted today he is creating a new city, Starbase, incorporating Boca Chica.

Starship is a combination second stage and crew quarters or cargo hold for Musk’s vehicle to take people and logistics to the Moon and Mars. The first stage, once called BFR, is simply named Super Heavy at this point.

Starship separating from its Super Heavy booster on the way to wherever. Credit: SpaceX

Starship has gone through a number of tests already and another is planned tomorrow, but Super Heavy has not left the barn.

SpaceX calls the Starship tests “hops” because the prototype lifts off the launch pad, rises to a certain altitude, translates over a bit, and returns to land on an adjacent pad. The two most recent tests, of Serial Number (SN)-8 and SN-9, did quite well until the end. Both failed the landing and exploded on impact with the ground.

Musk is undeterred by such failures. He had more prototypes ready and waiting their chance. SN10 is expected to lift off tomorrow. Musk’s non-traditional approach to testing, where failure is an option, is described entertainingly in a new book out today by Eric Berger of Ars Technica.

The Starship prototypes have three Raptor engines. The orbital flight version needs six just for Starship and another 24 or 31 for the Super Heavy booster.

When Musk and MZ originally revealed their plans for a circumlunar flight in 2023 it seemed far-fetched, but they are sticking to it today. MZ calls it the Dear Moon project. In 2018 he said he wanted to take artists along with him, but in a video today said his concept of who is an artist has evolved. Anyone who is creative qualifies. A total of eight seats are available, out of a total of 10-12 people who will be aboard. The opportunity is open to everyone, but applications must be submitted by March 14 to get further instructions on how to apply. A “Final Interview and Medical Checkup” will be in late May 2021.

Long a dream of space aficionados, the era of private spaceflight when ordinary people, not only professional astronauts, can journey into space, may at last be upon us for those willing to take the substantial risks.  Alan Ladwig’s book “See You in Orbit?” traces that quest.

SpaceX has two private astronaut missions to Earth orbit booked in the next 10 months. Billionaire Jared Isaacman bought all four seats on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for a several-day trip to Earth orbit later this year. He is using it as a fund-raising effort for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  He will command the Inspiration4 mission.  One of the seats is for Haley Arceneaux, a 29-year childhood cancer survivor who was a patient at St. Jude as a 10-year-old and is now a physicians’ assistant there.  Another will go to the winner of a lottery chosen from those who contribute to St. Jude through the Inspiration4 website, and the fourth to the winner of a competition of people building business websites through Isaacman’s Shift4Shop platform.

Separately, Axiom Space, which is planning to build a module to attach to the International Space Station (ISS), bought a Crew Dragon flight to ISS in January 2022.  It will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría and take three individuals who could afford the $55 million per person price to stay aboard the space station for a number of days.

Whether through individual wealth or a lottery ticket, getting into space these days is not limited to the prestigious selection process to become an astronaut at NASA or its sister agencies around the world. They still may be the most highly trained and capable of dealing with extreme situations, but anyone who just wants to go along for the ride now has a shot.

There are no guarantees. People must make their own risk calculations. The FAA regulates, facilitates and promotes commercial space launches and reentries, but existing law (the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 2004, as amended) prohibits it from requiring companies to obtain anything more than “informed consent” from passengers on commercial space flights at least through 2023, when this mission will take place. The FAA does not certify space vehicles like it does airliners.

And be forewarned.  Whether for government or private sector space missions, launch dates often slip.  In MZ’s video today Musk said he is “highly confident” about 2023 and it is “looking very promising,” but he is the first to admit he is often overly optimistic about timelines.

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