SpaceX to send two to moon by end of 2018

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The first two humans to approach the moon since December 1972 will be making the trip just next year. That is, at least, if everything goes according to Elon Musk’s newly-divulged plan for space tourism. Musk announced Monday that SpaceX, the privately held space exploration company of which he is the founder and CEO, intends to send two paying customers on a trip around the moon in 2018.

The two customers would be the world’s first space tourists, kickstarting an industry that has been a common trope of science fiction since exploration beyond our planet was first imagined. While SpaceX has been known to make ambitious plans before, this one was reportedly conceived by the individuals hoping to travel, not SpaceX itself. Each has already made a “significant” deposit, according to SpaceX.

While the cost of the trip is being kept confidential, multiple media outlets have made back of the envelope calculations based off SpaceX contracts with NASA to deliver crew to the International Space Station and Musk’s comment that the cost would be “comparible to maybe a little more than what the cost of a crewed mission to the space station would be.”

These estimates range from around $400 million to $1.5 billion, so the pool of possible paying customers is likely restricted to the very richest of the world’s wealthy. Despite that limitation, however, Musk noted that there are more lunar tourists lined up for the option to take a similar trip upon the success of the maiden voyage.

SpaceX certainly has many obstacles in the way before this plan can be seriously considered. The flight would require SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon capsule, neither of which have begun real-world testing or NASA certification. But this certainly would not be the first lofty goal set by Elon Musk, and he tends to complete them, if a little behind schedule.

SpaceX is notable for its long-term goal to extend the universal reach of the human race by populating other planets with self-sustaining civilizations. Musk has been public with seemingly untenable plans to colonize the earth’s neighboring planet Mars within the next decade and the hope to eventually achieve a population exceeding one million people. Musk sees colonization of the solar system as a necessary step to extend the lifetime of humanity as a whole, deeming our current status as single-planet inhabitants a risk. If something were to happen to the earth, the argument goes, humanity would be finished.

But with a completely autonomous civilization on another planet, the odds of human extinction are reduced. This step, flying a pair of wealthy individuals around the moon, is certainly in part a moneymaker and PR stunt, but also a valuable chance for SpaceX to test some of the technology it will need to put humans on another planet. If everything goes well, humans will travel beyond merely a low-earth orbit once again after a 45-year hiatus.

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