Almost 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first lunar launch to reach the moon. When it landed in the lunar Sea of Tranquility, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin (known as Buzz) became the first people to set foot on the lunar surface.
Fast forward to the present day, and if you’re bored with hiking Machu Pichu or cruising the Bahamas, your next vacation might be a trip around the moon, and it may happen within the next two years. At around $150 million per ticket, it not likely that people will be queuing up for this ride, but for those who can afford it, the trip may be worth every penny, especially since no one has seen the moon up close since 1972.
Your lunar excursion will take around 17 days, with half of that time taken up by traveling to the moon. So just how close will tourists be able to get? Experts claim that the craft will get within 100 kilometers of the moon’s surface.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX team were hoping to send their first lunar tourist trip in 2018, but it seems that more uncrewed tests must be made first. This is understandable as everyone obviously wants to be sure that the equipment will get everyone there and back safely.
Early in 2017, Musk announced that SpaceX would fly their first two paying customers around the moon before the end of 2018. Their spacecraft is known as the Dragon capsule, which is powered by the Falcon Heavy rocket. Now it’s looking as though the lunar launch won’t happen until mid-2019 at the earliest. One of the customers who has put a deposit down has been identified as Yusaku Maezawa, founder of the online Japanese clothing company, Zozo.
The Dragon has already made several trips from earth to the International Space Station carrying cargo, launching on the back of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket. SpaceX is working on preparing the crewed version of the Dragon. The company also has a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA to use the Dragon and Falcon to transport astronauts to and from the Space Station.
SpaceX may not be the only team to have a finger in the lunar pie. If tweets from NASASpaceFlight.com are to be believed, the first flight of NASA’s Orion-Space Launch System is to launch with a crew in 2019. Doing the flight around the moon without a crew would enable NASA to test a wide range of different systems, but with a crew, they would be able to prove that it can send people into cis-lunar space.
Why Haven’t Humans Returned to the Moon Yet?
The short answer is, it’s very difficult. The longer answer is much more complex. First of all, the next trip won’t just be about taking a few steps on the moon. NASA is planning to eventually set up a sustained human lunar presence. So, the goal is much bigger than last time. This means astronauts will require new tools and technologies to enable them to stay on the moon for weeks or months at a time, and NASA has to build a ship capable of transporting a crew and all the necessary gear.
It is Rocket Science
Once the spaceship is built, the next problem is how to get it to the moon. The space shuttles and rockets that NASA currently uses do not have the capability to break through low-earth orbit while carrying the equipment needed for a crewed expedition. The amount of rocket energy required for such a voyage does not exist anymore.
To combat this setback, NASA is working on two new rockets for the next lunar landing: the Ares I and Ares V. Not only will these crafts be larger than the previous spacecraft, but they will also be able to carry much more weight.
Size and weight are not the only hurdles to overcome; NASA also has to build the craft within a rigid budget. The budget amounts to $35 billion to build Orion, and the Ares I. That’s a lot of money, but NASA claims that a return trip to the moon is worth it for several reasons. Not only will it add significantly to the amount of lunar science that can be learned, but many of the newly developed technologies could also have applications here on earth. Some examples include closed-loop life support and environmental controls and highly efficient energy storage systems. NASA officials claim that these tech advances alone, are worth the fiscal challenges because of the positive impact they could have for our terrestrial society.