When Will Regular People Be Able to Visit the Moon?

When Will Regular People Be Able to Visit the Moon?
Illustration: Benjamin Currie/Gizmodo

As a tourist destination, the Moon doesn’t have a lot to offer: no beaches, no museums, no oxygen. On the other hand, it does have the virtue of being the Moon. The fucking Moon! That’s reason enough, really, to justify a trip, but try booking a flight and you’ll quickly run into obstacles. You’ll be told that NASA more or less dismantled its sending-people-to-the-Moon capacities decades ago and is only now building them back up. You’ll be told that even if, somehow, Moon tourism were made possible, it would be affordable only to the super-rich. Which raises the question: When will us common folk get to make the trip? For this week’s Giz Asks, we queried the experts to find out.

Wendy N. Whitman Cobb

Associate Professor, Strategy and Security Studies, U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

The first thing to understand about predictions for future events in space is that they’re never right and usually far too optimistic! Questions like this were being asked in the 1950s, with some claiming that regular lunar visits were just around the corner and would certainly be happening by the end of the century — the 20th century. Unfortunately, and to reference a commonly heard refrain, space is hard. And expensive.

First, for the good news: trips to the moon can be done. The technology, the capability to go to the moon, was proven by the Apollo program. It doesn’t require any new inventions, or a radical new technology. What it does require is money and commitment. While large, developed states have the money, they have lacked the commitment since the 1960s. On the other hand, private industry has generally lacked the money. Today’s developments in the commercial space industry are starting to upend this, however.

One of the most significant factors in cost is launch. It costs a lot of money to launch whatever spacecraft you want to take to the moon. Fortunately, the cost of launch is coming down because of the development of reusable launch vehicles. As is often pointed out, flying on an aeroplane would also be expensive if you had to throw away the plane every time you used it. Understanding this, companies like SpaceX have been working towards reusable launch vehicles that can be reflown in a short period of time. The space shuttle was only partially reusable and required significant amounts of time between flights to get it ready for the next one. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, on the other hand, is showing that a launcher can be mostly reusable and refurbished very quickly, sometimes in as little as 40 days. This drastically reduces the costs of getting to orbit, putting things like trips to the moon more firmly in the realm of the possible for a private company.

So, for the bad news: even with launch costs coming down, it’s still really expensive and really dangerous. For the foreseeable future, the only people who will be going to the moon will be state-backed astronauts or wealthy tourists who have the millions of dollars it’s likely to still cost. Theoretically, these types of trips would not only demonstrate the safety and reliability of transportation to and from the lunar surface, but give companies and countries a reason to more fully develop lunar bases. It would probably be only after these bases were developed and regular trips between the Earth and the moon were occurring that regular people would be able to hop a ride without taking out a second mortgage.

So when might this be? If we continue at our current rate of progress, it might be the end of the 21st century at the earliest. This is a mighty big “if,” though. While there is pressure for countries to undertake lunar programs right now, there’s no guarantee it will be sustained. This is exactly what happened after the Apollo program. Once America got there, support, which had already been dropping, fell even more precipitously. This could happen again. Or countries and companies might find no reason to stay on the moon, especially if they could go to Mars instead. On the other hand, if valuable resources are found on the moon (for instance, He3 [helium-3]) or other compelling rationales are found to sustain lunar exploration, the timeline might be sped up. A lot of this progress depends on public opinion and/or commercial demand, both forces which are historically finicky.

Bottom line: while I would jump at the first opportunity to do so, I don’t think I’ll be going to the Moon in my lifetime. It might be in the realm of the possible for my nieces and nephews, but most likely it will be the generation after that… if all goes well.

[All the views expressed are the author’s own and not representative of the Department of Defence or any of its affiliates.]

Scott Magelssen

Professor of Drama and Performance Studies at the University of Washington and author of Performing Flight: From the Barnstormers to Space Tourism

I’m not holding my breath. It’s true that we’ve had the basic science and technology to bring ordinary people to the moon and back since the late 60s. The lunar missions of the Apollo program were a tremendous scientific and technological achievement, but the public excitement and taxpayer will were not enough to sustain that program, and it was retired even before it had completed all it had planned for its first phases, much less make good on the futuristic dreams of moon bases and regular traffic back and forth.

Now that much of the space industry has been largely taken over by private companies, and because we’ve seen a handful of wealthy individuals pay their own way to visit the International Space Station, the promise of space tourism for regular folks once again seems within reach. The ambitious goals of Virgin Galactic bringing paying customers into near earth orbit, or SpaceX sending private citizens for a lunar flyby trip, however, have been deferred for years now, and public buy-in has been dampened by setbacks and tragedies like that of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in 2014.

And in many ways we seem farther away from the vision of Moon tourism than we were even a decade ago. Because private spaceflight is now ostensibly in the hands of a very small number of celebrity billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson, the whole tenuous enterprise hinges on their continued success. We would do well to be mindful, then, of their vulnerability, and not only financially: We’ve seen that the fate of a charismatic public figure can turn on a dime with the exposure of a scandal or even a poorly considered tweet. And the space industry has come under scrutiny for potentially disastrous environmental impacts on Earth, like the amount of black carbon emissions that would be dumped into the atmosphere by the kind of increased launch activity necessary for regular space travel.

But most sobering are the recent findings that sustained exposure to radiation and long periods of reduced-gravity, which are persistent elements of spaceflight, do far more damage to the human body than we’d been thinking. As studies of astronaut Scott Kelly after a year in space have shown, our bodies essentially begin to fall apart once we leave the protection of our planet’s atmosphere and gravitational pull. Cognitive impairment, muscle and bone deterioration, and atrophy to the heart are just a few of the negative mental and physiological impacts brought on by time spent in space. I imagine that, for many, these dangers would be worth the risk, but what about the flight crews and other space staff who’d endure lengthier exposure? And who knows what kind of obstacles this will present to the Department of Transportation and the FAA or whatever organisation will be approving and regulating space travel in the future. The idea of ordinary people walking on the Moon’s surface one day continues to be dazzling, but I fully expect this last point will be one of the biggest hurdles we’re going to have to get over for that to happen, and I don’t know that we’ll get it figured out in our lifetime.

Jim Bell

Professor, Earth & Space Exploration, University of Arizona and author of The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide, who is is heavily involved in NASA solar system exploration missions

In my book “The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide,” I imagine a future around 200 years from now when interplanetary travel and tourism for regular people is as common across our solar system as travel and tourism is across our own planet today. By then, I claim, advances in propulsion and other technologies will have cut down today’s travel times dramatically, and the build-up of infrastructure and services at off-planet destinations will support space tourism as a viable business model.

OK, but what about those of us who won’t be around 200 years from now? If current plans by NASA and other space agencies pan out, trained astronauts will be returning to explore the Moon for short visits sometime within the next decade. It is reasonable to assume that if current trends in advances in commercial and governmental space systems continue, the technologies for modern interplanetary human-capable launchers, orbiters, landers, and rovers will get proven out on the Moon in the 2020s and 2030s as well as on Mars in the 2030s and 2040s. While no specific lunar base or settlement plans are currently being developed (beyond high-level studies), lower-cost and higher-reliability access to deep space could very well fuel a significant burst in the deep space economy — including the first opportunities for space tourism for regular people — in the second half of the 21st century.

So, eat well, exercise, and aim for longevity, and maybe by your golden years that weekend on the Moon will really be possible.

Alex Roland

Professor Emeritus, History, Duke University, who studies military history and the history of technology

We can say with confidence that it will not be within the next fifty years. Beyond that time horizon reside too many unknowns. Within it, no foreseeable technology will be able to overcome the obstacles of physics, politics, economics, and human physiology that now preclude routine human spaceflight. Two distinct realities suggest the challenges facing enthusiasts of Moon tourism.

First, the technology of spaceflight currently favours machines over people. Anything useful we might want to do in space — including exploration — costs ten times as much if we send people to do it. This was true during the space race to the Moon in the 1960s, and it is even more true today. Thanks to the microelectronics and AI revolutions of the last half century, automated and remotely controlled spacecraft can do anything in space that humans might do, and they can do it better, at less risk and lower cost. Placing people aboard a spacecraft immediately converts it from whatever mission it might have had to a life-support and life-saving mission of bringing the people back alive. Aboard the ageing space station, astronauts mostly serve as human subjects of scientific study, measuring the baleful impact of weightlessness, isolation, and radiation.

The second obstacle to a colony on the Moon is investment. What human collective — nation, corporation, or community — will pay the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to plant people on the Moon? And what return on investment might they expect? Nothing on the Moon would repay the cost of sending people to get it. Using the Moon as a way station to Mars raises the ante without answering the question of return on investment. Colonising extraterrestrial bodies with current technology mimics colonialism on Earth, without the lure of getting rich. Better investments beckon. Only a handful of humans live in Earth’s polar regions. None live at the bottom of our oceans. Both realms are much easier and less expensive to reach, simpler and safer to inhabit, and more useful to explore and exploit. Multi-millionaires or billionaires might pay for the cachet of being early tourists on the Moon, but no “regular people” in any foreseeable future will have the disposable wealth to pay even a fraction of the fare.

Rather than ask when regular people will be able to go to the Moon, it might be more revealing to ask if anyone will go to the Moon in the next fifty years. Who? Why?

Scott Hubbard

Adjunct Professor, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University, who served as NASA’s first Mars program director

The stated schedule is landing “the first woman and next man” in 2024. Based on my own experience and a recent audit by the GAO (Government Accountability Office), the chances of that happening on schedule are low. Once NASA and the Artemis partners do land, it will likely be some years before a paying customer could do the same. I will note that the pace of purely commercial human flights does seem to be accelerating. SpaceX and Axiom are planning one relatively soon.

Mark J. Sundahl

Professor of Law and Director of the Global Space Centre at Cleveland State University

The historical evolution of the astronaut suggests that it will be sooner rather than later. I expect the first tourists to set foot on the Moon within the next ten years, given NASA’s ambitious plans under the Artemis program coupled with the fierce entrepreneurial energy that is driving the revolution in space travel.

In the beginning of the Space Age, only military test pilots with the “right stuff” could be astronauts. Scientists and other “payload specialists” were eventually added to the astronaut corps as duties of the crew expanded beyond mere piloting. In 1986, a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe was added to the shuttle crew to bring the dream of space travel to the common citizen. In 2001, the USSR started flying tourists to the ISS, when Dennis Tito spent eight days in orbit.

Ordinary people will soon fly (briefly) into suborbital space with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin for a “mere” $US250,000 ($320,650). Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, along with eight of his friends, is scheduled to circumnavigate the Moon on SpaceX’s Starship in 2023, and the first astronauts are (with some degree of optimism) expected to land on the surface of Moon the following year on the same spacecraft. Once the Starship proves safe after multiple crewed and uncrewed missions to the Moon under Artemis, tourists will be close behind. Perhaps as early as 2027. How “ordinary” these tourists are will depend on the ticket price, but that will come down in time. By 2031, I expect that lines will be forming to take a trip to the Moon — and the Starship has been designed to meet this demand with the capacity to deliver 100 people in a single flight. That said, many believed that the first suborbital tourists would fly soon after the Ansari X-Prize was won in 2004 by the company that designed the progenitor of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip III. We are still waiting for the maiden flight of paying passengers in 2021.

Peter Ward

Professor of Biology and Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at Washington University

I don’t think we’ll ever get there. At least, I won’t.

The birth rate, right now, is dropping everywhere. Combined with really good medicines, that means an ageing population, which means that ever-increasing parts of gross national product will have to go towards dealing with old farts like me. Every decade going forward, we’ll be reducing the amount of expendable money produced by humans on Earth. Things like putting money into the ability to engineer common rockets to the Moon will be increasingly untenable — the whole space program is going to be eaten up by this, unless we can find some way to generate a profit from space. And the only place to do that is the asteroid belt — there’s nothing on the moon to make money from.

Also: what is a regular person? There are really wealthy people — people in San Francisco, say, making $US300,000 ($384,780) or $US400,000 ($513,040) a year — who could never afford one of these versions of intergalactic space flight, which are going to charge around $US200,000 ($256,520) just for ten minutes in lower space. If we could somehow get the price for a moon trip to $US5 ($6) million — I mean, how many people can pay that much?

Never say never, but I don’t see it happening this century.

Robert Goehlich

Space tourism expert and adjunct assistant professor at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide

My short answer is: Between 10 and 100 years.

In my Textbook of Space Tourism, I divided current and future space tourism activities into ten stages of complexity, starting with stage 1 — “natural attractions and others” — and finishing with stage 10: “beyond flights.” I defined moon flights as stage 8: “Compared to a simple suborbital or orbital flight, the complexity of the moon flight scenario increases significantly… In the context of space tourism, moon trips are unlikely in the short term unless tourists just orbit the moon and do not land on it. In 1968, Apollo 8’s astronauts orbited the Moon and saw the same view from the spacecraft that tourists might see… Once mass space tourism to Earth orbit becomes an everyday occurrence, wealthy tourists will want to travel to and even land on the Moon.”

Keeping this in mind and assuming that there is a safe moon rocket in place, I could imagine an optimistic scenario where sporadic “regular people,” for example, win a ticket for a moon flight in the near-term. A pessimistic scenario might be that even in the long term, no “regular people” are able to visit the Moon due to still-unsolved safety, environmental, and financial issues. A realistic scenario is somewhere in the middle, and history will teach us in retrospect.

Garrett Reisman

American engineer and former NASA astronaut

It might be sooner than you think. Both NASA and other national space programs are planning on sending humans to the Moon on behalf of their respective governments in the near future, but private citizens are setting their sights on the Moon as well. In fact, one private citizen, Yusaku Maezawa, has already reached an agreement with SpaceX for a circumlunar voyage. Other opportunities will follow, since in the new commercial paradigm, NASA is contracting for transportation services with private companies like SpaceX — but the private company owns and operates the vehicles, which allows them to use their capabilities for non-NASA customers. Now, admittedly, these customers are not ‘regular people’ — they are extremely rich people. But over time costs will come down and accessibility will go up. So when will non-billionaires be able to buy a ticket and visit the Moon? No one really knows, but it took about 60 years for airline travel to become affordable with deregulation in 1978, and I hope we can do better in space and achieve affordability within the next 50 years.

Julie Brisset

Associate Scientist at the Florida Space Institute

It depends a bit on what you mean by regular people: just non-astronauts, i.e. very rich space tourists for example, or really regular people like you and me.

Space tourists, who must be very rich, could probably visit the Moon long before regular people will, just like they did the Space Station. Private companies like Blue Origin will most likely offer rides there just like they offer suborbital flights now.

In any case, I think the sequence will go: first astronauts, then technicians/workers who will build infrastructure, then a few pioneers who will be willing to settle there, then maybe more people from the population.

The key will be a regular build up of the economical use of the cis-lunar space. If there is a financial incentive for settling activities on the Moon, regular people visiting could eventually just be a side effect. Just like cities grew along rail tracks back when trains became used for transport.

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