SpaceX’s 2018 Moon mission faces significant challenges
Last month’s announcement that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the Moon in late 2018 – fresh on the heels of a similar announcement from NASA – has ignited considerable debate among industry insiders, pundits, and followers of the NewSpace company.
On the face of it, the plan seems relatively simple: two passengers who have given SpaceX a sizable deposit will undertake a relatively short-duration mission (by today’s spaceflight standards) in which the Crew Dragon capsule will leave low-Earth orbit after launching atop a Falcon Heavy rocket to loop around the Moon, return to Earth, and splash down in the ocean.
This circumlunar flight will make use of a free-return trajectory, which is an orbital path that allows the spacecraft return to Earth after making a long loop around the Moon without subsequent propulsion.
This type of flight profile allows for a return to Earth, even in the event of a failure of the vehicle’s propulsion system, and is inherently safer and less complicated than if the spacecraft were to enter orbit around the Moon.
It’s a mission that will, in many ways, harken back to humankind’s first flight to lunar vicinity: Apollo 8. Perhaps not coincidentally, SpaceX’s planned flight might occur in close proximity to the anniversary of that groundbreaking mission from 50 years ago.
SpaceX’s many accomplishments
Formed in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX has been in existence for a mere 15 years. In that time, it has accomplished a number of things including creating the first privately developed liquid-fueled launch vehicle to go into orbit – the Falcon 1. A two-stage rocket, the Falcon 1 stood some 70 feet (21.3 meters) in height.
After that, the company’s attention began to focus on the larger, more powerful, Falcon 9. With the help of development funding via NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the first flight occurred in 2010. Also a two-stage rocket, the current version of the Falcon 9, the “Full Thrust” stands some 230 feet (70 meters) in height.
In 2012, a short 10 years after the company’s founding, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft that subsequently rendezvoused with and was berthed to the International Space Station (ISS).
The Dragon capsule, which was also partially funded by COTS, is now one of two private spacecraft that service the ISS several times a year.
SpaceX’s comparatively inexpensive launch service has been a disruptive force throughout the worldwide launch industry, causing many providers to examine ways to cut their costs while providing a competitive product.
As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX is one of two companies developing spacecraft to send people to the ISS.
For added safety for a crew, engineers are developing an integrated launch escape system (LES) that also doubles as a landing system.
Rather than discard an expensive towed-tractor style LES, like those used on Apollo and the new Orion spacecraft, this new system has the potential to be used to allow heavier payloads to be landed on Mars, or to propulsively land on a pad back on Earth, negating the need for a water recovery.
Perhaps SpaceX’s crowning technical achievement to date, however, is the recovery of the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. While every other active launch service provider discards their hardware once its job is complete, SpaceX’s goal is to recover the stage, either by landing it near the launch site or having it land on an automated drone ship, and reuse the hardware.
The NewSpace firm now wants to send people around the Moon. NASA was able to accomplish something similar nearly 50 years ago during a time when crewed deep space flight information was non-existent and flight computers were a tiny fraction as capable as today’s smartphones. As such, the argument could be made that SpaceX can accomplish the same thing in less time.
SpaceX’s history to date
Certainly, SpaceX has done some incredible things, and it’s not entirely unlikely it could pull off a crewed flight around the Moon in less than two years. However, the company is not infallible, something a cursory glance at its track record will readily show.
SpaceX has lost two rockets within a 14 month period – one of which exploded on the pad during a test. Though no one was injured in either incident, it is still a point of significant concern. In fact, some have questioned SpaceX’s focus and consider it a prime reason for the company’s issues.
While the company has 29 successful launches on its books, it has never launched crew, or flown the Falcon Heavy, or orbited the Crew Dragon spacecraft, or conducted an in-flight abort, or have a completed space-worthy life support system.
With so little time to meet the stated goal of the end of 2018, each of these development milestones takes on extra urgency.
Perhaps one of the most critical pieces of evidence comes from the company itself. In stark contrast to the ambitious announcement, SpaceX has never once met its projected annual flight cadence, often missing it by a significant margin. Nor has it ever accomplished a major stated goal on-time. To wit, Falcon Heavy was to initially fly in 2012.
Indeed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is well-known for aggressive schedule forecasts – often unmet – and has even made mention of it himself. Unfortunately, the inability of the company to meet its timelines has caused SpaceX to lose business. As noted, SpaceX has launched 30 times, 29 of them successful since June of 2010, providing them with a rate of launch of about 4 times per year.
Progress is being made, but hurdles remain
SpaceX is confident it can conduct the mission while still meeting its Commercial Crew Program commitments to NASA. For its part, the space agency released a statement that initially seemed to support SpaceX’s bold mission, though a closer inspection hints that might not be the case.
“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,” the agency’s release stated.
A possible translation: NASA needs SpaceX to complete the tasks for which it has been paid.
Of course, SpaceX plans to fulfill its Commercial Crew Program obligations while also working on the circumlunar mission. For both to happen, however, significant work remains to be done. There is the potential that these differing objectives might strain the company’s capabilities.
Allaying concerns about the spacecraft, Musk has said the Crew Dragon’s heat shield was designed for reentry from cislunar missions and is ready as is.
“The heat shield is quite massively over-designed,” Musk said in a conference call with reporters, according to Eric Berger in a report by Ars Technica.
Life support systems development is also moving forward, with SpaceX recently initiating evaluations for the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) of its Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“Extensive testing of the ECLSS module has and will continue to contribute to improvements to Crew Dragon’s design and operation, which ultimately leads to greater crew safety,” said Nicolas Lima, a life support systems engineer at SpaceX, in a release from NASA.
Musk said the vehicle is hardened against radiation, a necessity when spacecraft go beyond the protection of Earth’s radiation belts, but the communication system will need to be upgraded as it is undersized for a mission at lunar distance.
“We are confident this will be a good vehicle to fly on,” Musk said during the conference call.
Time marches on
Though the SpaceX CEO is optimistic the mission will lift-off in 2018, that confidence isn’t shared by all.
The lack of flight-proven experience is something that concerns Wayne Hale, a former manager of the Space Shuttle program. In an interview with Space.com, Hale gave a succinct analysis, likely shared by many.
“I would feel much more positive about their program if they had already demonstrated human spaceflight on their Dragon V2 capsule […],” Hale said. “I think their schedule is so aggressive as to not be believable.”
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.