Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has announced that two paying customers have arranged to be launched on a trip around the moon aboard a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to be launched on the Falcon Heavy. He declined to name the two private space explorers except to hint they know one another and were able to pay a hefty sum for the first private mission beyond low Earth orbit. Musk expects the flight to take place in 2018 or 2019. The flight will not involve an attempt to land, but will likely consist of a free return, similar to the one used by Apollo 13, a loop around the moon and then back to Earth.

The flight will take place once commercial service begins to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The announcement comes, ironically, soon after NASA created some excitement by announcing that it is doing a feasibility study to send an Orion on a similar mission around the moon, launched by a heavy lift space launch system. While many people have expressed excitement about the idea that humans may venture beyond low Earth orbit around the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, others have groused that the thing ought to be done commercially.

Musk has greatly buttressed those arguments, with the added plus that his flight would be entirely private.

To be sure, Musk has slipped deadlines before. The first flight of the Falcon Heavy, due to happen this year, has been pushed back for the past several years. The Red Dragon flight to Mars has already been delayed two years. But the announcement has put an enormous amount of pressure on NASA.

The best case scenario is that the SLS now has a competitor. The worst case is that the NASA heavy lift rocket has a replacement. The SLS, even in its initial form, can lift far more mass into space than the Falcon Heavy. However, the NASA built rocket is far more expensive to launch, owing to the fact that it is entirely expendable.

Another irony is that a few weeks ago, a fly off to the moon was proposed between the Space Launch System and commercial rockets such as the Falcon Heavy.

Russia still has a around the moon project, not scheduled for several more years at best. It looks like that new race to the moon may be happening regardless of what policy makers have to say.

Now, the ball is in the court of Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin company is developing the New Glenn and the New Armstrong rockets. Could the new race to the moon be joined soon?

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