ESSAY: A Risky, Untested Mission to the Moon
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has announced in recent days its intention to launch two private citizens (non-astronauts) on a week long journey to flyby the Moon, then out beyond it a ways, then back to Earth. These two intrepid and wealthy ticket-buyers (identities yet to be announced) will enjoy (apparently) a calm, fully automated ride in which they will have to do nothing to pilot the craft, but simply sit back and enjoy the broad vistas.
Now I’m all for space missions—those done by governments, and certainly those done by private entities. Even the Chinese (via their highly successful ever-operating initiatives to steal the knowledge of more technologically proficient nations and copy it) have been able (apparently) to land a rover on the Moon in December of 2013. However, I’m not at all convinced that SpaceX has the capability to pull off a successful manned mission to the Moon based on their history of missions (in so far as what they’ve been) and their success vs. failure ratio.
It seems that SpaceX is doing well in providing a niche option for resupplying the International Space Station, and that’s a beautiful and welcome thing. However, to announce a confident intention to engineer a manned close lunar flyby along with a jaunt out beyond into the void, and then a return soft landing to Earth on an entirely fly-by-wire operation seems to me ridiculously risky, especially without experienced pilots aboard. It is also absurd, in my view, to attempt such a manned lunar objective without having any track record of launching, hitting the target, and returning a vehicle at such a mission distance and inherent complexity as the Moon and beyond.
Hopefully these private citizen-passenger-bystanders will have their proper affairs in order as the risk to their lives will be far greater than minor.
Elon Musk has said that NASA will have the right of first refusal if they want to have two of their own take this ride, as opposed to the two private citizens. It will be telling, I think, to see what NASA decides on this.
Short of SpaceX attempting some unmanned test runs for this mission, culminating perhaps in the safe passage and return of two monkeys (like in the good old days), then I would hope that the appropriate American flight authorities that grant permission for such things will withhold their permission for this flight.
Space travel of any kind is not a joke. It is not an easy thing. It is difficult and fraught with danger and uncertainties. It is an operation requiring exactitude, safety measures, backups, and meticulous engineering, and multiple and repeated rechecks and monitoring. Space is the ultimate example of an unforgiving environment for human beings. Manned and unmanned spaceflight has never been an ego frivolity — but rather it has been the extraordinary work of many famous (and totally unknown) people totally dedicated professionally (often times for years) to bring about the success of a single mission.
Let’s not get caught up in the typical corporate hype of one company’s ego — particularly when their idea risks the lives of human beings.
I’m all for the success of SpaceX and the others who want to do these things — but I say that before they send human beings they should prove a minimum proficiency in an unmanned way prior to the main event involving humans.
That goes for Mars, as well.
My suggestion to SpaceX:
If you’re as ready to do this in 2018 as you say, go ahead and run an actual test and let’s see how that works. I’m pretty sure that the two private individuals who have already put down a deposit on the main objective would also be appreciative of a successful test run. I think you owe that to humanity and to the protocol of basic human responsibility.
When’s your test first test flight for your proposed manned lunar flyby? Perhaps I missed your announcement of it.