On February 27, SpaceX issued a press release stating that it would be sending two people around the Moon, possibly late next year. This circumnavigation of the Moon has been reserved with a sizable down payment made by these two private citizens, who have not yet been named. Although this private mission has been criticized as a stunt, this is actually an important test of the SpaceX Dragon Version Two spacecraft’s ability to support a crew in deep space that is not being paid for with taxpayer dollars.
SpaceX Dragon To Send People Around The Moon
Of these two unnamed people, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would only say, “It’s nobody from Hollywood.” He says he does not have permission to reveal their names or reveal any identifying details such as their profession yet. What SpaceX could say is that health checks of these two individuals are pending and the lunar circumnavigation (which is, incidentally, a fancy way of saying, “trip around the Moon”) will likely occur following manned and unmanned tests of an upgraded version of the current, unmanned Dragon spacecraft. These initial tests will include the fulfillment of SpaceX’s contract with NASA to resupply and eventually carry crew members to the International Space Station over the next couple of years.
Governments Could Encourage Space Tourism As An Additional Revenue Stream
Those who support the reduction of government spending should support privately funded space missions like this one because it supports aerospace businesses and creates jobs without the need to spend billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer revenue on a crewed space program.
Private citizens have already demonstrated that there is demand for private spaceflight. The most famous of these is aerospace engineer Dennis Tito, who was the first to pay the Russians for a trip to the International Space Station. He reportedly paid $20 million for the adventure, but had to overcome objections from NASA, who feared that an untrained space tourist would cause damage to U.S. components of the space station. Reacting to this, supporters like astronaut Buzz Aldrin were heard to say that NASA could have saved money by selling unused seats on the Space Shuttle to willing private passengers during each mission!
NASA definitely didn’t go for that idea. Senior management were probably spooked by the Challenger disaster and/or listened to the lawyers on their payroll who said that NASA didn’t need the liability. But it was a missed opportunity to get the public used to the idea that spaceflight did not necessarily need to be the exclusive realm of a lucky elite that government agencies deemed fit to fly in space and gain an additional revenue stream in the process.
Government agencies will probably be major customers of manned space missions for a long time. However, the cost can be shared with private citizens who are willing to pay for empty seats or commission a spaceflight of their own. The couple who is paying SpaceX for a flight around the Moon are essentially doing the latter, which essentially helps SpaceX anticipate being able to check the box next to an important line item in the list of tests that need to be performed before it is capable of regular, crewed deep space flights.
Elon Musk has indicated in recent statements that other private citizens are interested in doing the same, which helps this aerospace company keep its engineers and technicians employed without relying quite so much on government contracts.
Public-Private Partnerships and Private Ventures Could Also Save Money
Many supporters of private space missions are aerospace professionals who are interested in new private-public partnerships such as NASA’s recent investment in “turn-key” technologies that are being developed by private companies who only need additional funding for research and development to advance their work. NASA has not asked for exclusive ownership of these new technologies and, in fact, would not object to them being used as part of private space missions. The purpose of these public-private partnerships is to encourage private organizations to make an up-front investment in new technologies by offering flat-fee “bounties” for successful demonstration of new concepts.
This basically means that the government won’t say no to private organizations like Iridium using these new technologies to launch telecommunications satellites, or to projects like OneWeb that want to provide satellite Internet service to economically disadvantaged populations. These are space-related projects that can connect all people, including the disadvantaged, without the need to spend government revenue.
Others criticize NASA’s “Journey to Mars” effort and especially work being done on the Space Launch System as being an expensive boondoggle that could only have been invented by NASA bureaucrats and large corporations that depend on aerospace contracts and the military-industrial complex to exist. Mars Society president Robert Zubrin is one supporter who believes that private aerospace corporations like SpaceX could reduce the burden on the American taxpayer and make manned missions to Mars more palatable to politicians:
“SpaceX is developing, at greatly reduced cost and schedule, a substantial fraction of the set of flight systems needed to send humans to Mars. This could make a ‘humans to Mars’ initiative far more attractive to political leaders, as it becomes evident that the mission could be accomplished during their time in office, at most cost to the government. Effectively this is the public-private partnership that is materializing. The taxpayers will benefit by reduced cost. SpaceX will benefit by getting the business.”
Elon Musk has also repeatedly stated that he has plans beyond competing for government contracts. He would like to see a colony on Mars within his lifetime, even famously saying, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” If he achieves his goal of bringing the cost of forming that colony down to the typical price of a lakefront property in a decent neighborhood, the whole thing could be funded by people who could afford the lakefront property, but are feeling adventurous and decide to go to Mars instead. That makes a colony on Mars something that could be accomplished – and, naturally, help aerospace companies and provide jobs in the process – without requiring taxpayer money.
Of course, this is something that will require some intermediate steps, if not all of the work that NASA wants to do between now and the time it plans to actually send people to Mars. Buzz Aldrin seems rather unimpressed with the manned lunar mission, tweeting his favorite quote from the movie Total Recall: “Been there, done that. I prefer Get Your Ass to #Mars #GYATM”. However, this time, the Apollo 8-like circumnavigation of the Moon is being paid for by private citizens and that means that the aerospace industry could grow and create jobs without requiring government funding.
American taxpayers may like ideas like this because most are indifferent at best toward government-funded space exploration. They may wonder why the government continues to fund space exploration and other government programs that they would not have supported financially if they had a choice.
The good part about space exploration is that it has economic benefits like making innovative high-tech businesses like SpaceX profitable and creating jobs. The better part is that wealthy individuals are increasingly interested in paying for a ride into space, even if it’s “just” a suborbital hop on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. If interest from private citizens who may be willing to pay for a ticket to destinations throughout the solar system grows, this can provide solid economic growth without requiring much more from the government than tolerance for these private endeavors.
What do you think of the SpaceX Dragon mission to come? Let us know in the comment section below.