Two tourists to fly around the Moon in 2018

Tickets, please! “It is incumbent on us as people to extend life beyond Earth”, says Elon Musk.

A private rocket company has announced that two private citizens have bought a flight around the Moon next year. Tickets cost $250,000. A waste of money, or a pioneering trip of a lifetime?

In 1969, 150 million people watched Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the Moon. It was hailed as a step forward for humanity comparable with the inventions of agriculture and electricity. Sooner or later, many predicted, trips to the Moon would become as common as a summer holiday in Florida or Spain.

It has not quite turned out like that. Nearly 50 years have now passed since humans travelled to “deep space”, but that looks set to change next year.

The US private rocket company SpaceX is set to send two tourists to fly around the Moon in late 2018. Trips cost $250,000, and the unnamed people have “already paid a significant deposit”.

They will fly aboard a spaceship which is set for an unmanned test flight later this year. The mission itself would involve a loop around the Moon, skimming the lunar surface and then going well beyond — to the mystical “dark side of the Moon”. But there will be no lunar landing.

Chief executive of SpaceX Elon Musk, the world’s 94th richest person, said the two passengers “will travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them,” adding that they would be “carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration”.

The amazing thing about this mission, according to the BBC’s science correspondent Jonathan Amos, is its ultra-fast timeline. Most groups planning missions to space aim to temper expectations by saying that their dreams are many years away.

But despite Musk’s determination to put space travel back on the agenda, it is unlikely to become available to anyone bar the wealthy elite any time soon. Are there not better ways to spend a quarter of a million dollars?

Lunar-cy?

Of course there are! say some. Think of the lives that could be saved or the children who could be educated with that money. Worse, space travel represents the most blatant form of elitism. For The Guardian in 2014, Zoe Williams wrote: “When rich people burn huge sums of money on fun, it wakes us up to the excesses of the free market.” Such a waste of fossil fuel “could only be considered by someone who either didn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change or didn’t care”.

But others dismiss these fears, believing that space travel is fundamentally important. In an article for the BBC, Richard Hollingham writes that, once space travel becomes more widespread, costs would eventually come down. Only a few years ago, $250,000 for a trip around the Moon would have seemed improbably cheap. And it would also give more people “a new view of our planet”, which could change how humanity deals with problems like pollution and climate change. You cannot put a price on that.

You Decide

  1. Is space travel a waste of money?
  2. Would you want to travel around the Moon?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have won $250,000 on the lottery. How would you choose to spend it?
  2. Do some research and write down three key challenges that humans face in travelling to other parts of the solar system.

Some People Say...

“How rich people decide to spend their money is none of our business.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will I ever have the chance to go to the Moon?
You never know! If you work hard, you might one day get a foot on the Moon. A NASA career requires a degree in science, mathematics or engineering. And if you want to fly spaceships yourself, you will first need to learn how to fly ordinary aeroplanes. But perhaps there is a simpler way: just make a lot of money.
Surely their timeline is a bit optimistic?
Perhaps. The hardware has not even been flown yet, although Elon Musk’s rockets have been working for some time now. But as Jonathan Amos of the BBC put it: “The circumlunar project is another step on from robotic cargo runs to low-Earth orbit.” There is very little time after the test to configure systems and to learn from mistakes, so do not be surprised if there are delays.

Word Watch

1969
Apollo 11 was the first space flight to land humans on the moon. Mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin, both Americans, landed the lunar module “Eagle” on July 20th 1969.
Dark side of the Moon
The hemisphere of the Moon that always faces away from Earth. It receives just as much light as the other half of the moon; it is “dark” in the sense of being unknown.
Elon Musk
A South African-born business owner, investor and inventor, who moved to Canada before becoming a US citizen. He has stated that the goals of his various businesses include reducing global warming through promoting sustainable energy, and reducing the “risk of human extinction” by “making life multiplanetary”. He plans to set up a colony on Mars by 2040, with a population of 80,000 people.
A new view of our planet
Eugene Cernan, who died in January, was the last person to set foot on the Moon; he said that seeing Earth from the Moon was a profound experience because it gave him an outsider’s perspective: the planet “was alive, it was moving, with purpose and beauty through space and time”.

Subjects

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