In a move that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, SpaceX is postponing its plan to send a pair of private citizens on a trip around the Moon.
Launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy on 6 February 2018. Photo: SpaceX
Elon Musk's venture into the space tourism industry is going to have to wait.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, the ambitious rocket company is slowing down its proposal to send a pair of private citizens on what would have undoubtedly been a glorious one-week journey to the Moon and back. The mission is not going to happen in 2018 as initially hoped, and the company hasn't offered a new timeline for the trip.
SpaceX spokesperson James Gleeson confirmed the postponement in an email to The WSJ, saying "SpaceX is still planning to fly private individuals around the moon and there is growing interest from many customers."
The Musk-led company announced the lunar flyby project on 27 February 2017, saying two unnamed citizens had signed up, and that they had paid a "significant" deposit. Plans were put in place to start health tests and training, but it seems the company had gotten a bit ahead of itself.
Indeed, SpaceX is no stranger to delays; the Falcon Heavy rocket finally went up in February following years of postponements. SpaceX hasn't offered a reason for this most recent delay, but The WSJ said "technical and production challenges" likely forced the postponement.
No doubt, it was becoming painfully obvious that a trip to the Moon wasn't going to happen this year. The Falcon Heavy rocket - the launch vehicle required for the project - has only undergone a single launch, and the Dragon 2 spacecraft, which will carry the two pioneering passengers, has yet to be tested with humans onboard.
As it stands, the first crewed test of Dragon 2 won't happen until December 2018. The WSJ is a bit more pessimistic, predicting the first crewed tests could "drag well into 2019", with "approval for routine operational flights coming many months later".
SpaceX is poised to make big money from space tourism, a new revenue stream that could further its goal of eventually establishing settlements on the Moon and Mars. But it also carries risk. A calamity involving private citizens would complicate the company's relationship with NASA, which is counting on the Dragon 2 capsule for its missions to the International Space Station.
That said, NASA is also working with Boeing, which is currently working on the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner - a capsule that, like Dragon 2, will take astronauts (and possibly private citizens) to the ISS, among other space-based destinations.
The delay in the Moon loop mission may also have something to do with SpaceX's renewed focus on developing a rocket that's even larger than the Falcon Heavy. The company is clearly banking on launch vehicles with tremendous thrust capability, despite the fact that SpaceX has seen a dip in interest in its big rocket.
Charles Miller, a consultant and space entrepreneur, told The WSJ that the recently upgraded Falcon 9 rocket - now with more thrust - has "eliminated much of the commercial need for the Falcon Heavy".
For a company as ambitious as SpaceX, delays are par for the course. Moving forward, however, the company's overreaching announcements need to be met with scepticism. SpaceX is doing truly pioneering work, such as lowering the cost of getting into space and introducing the world's first reusable rocket, but the company has also proven that it's very good at generating hype.