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Want to fly around the moon? Space tourism returns with SpaceX mission

Most of us live our lives with our feet firmly planted on planet Earth. A select few become astronauts and experience a world of weightlessness and exploration. Even fewer can claim to have been real space tourists, civilians with enough cash and ambition to hitch a ride into orbit. That number is expected to increase by two in 2018 when SpaceX plans to launch a privately crewed mission around the moon.

Back to our lunar neighbor

The last time humans got to the moon was all the way back in 1972 during NASA’s Apollo 17 mission. The SpaceX astronauts won’t touch down on the moon, but they will fly around it in a Dragon spacecraft and then zoom on back to their home planet. SpaceX notes that two private individuals have already paid a “significant deposit” for the privilege of zipping around the moon. So far, the identities of these future space tourists are unknown.

A pioneering mission

SpaceX plans to launch a demonstration mission of its Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station later this year in order to test the technology. There will be no people on board for that test flight. The company expects to send a crew up in the spacecraft in the first half of 2018 as part of a contract to ferry NASA astronauts to the station. If the technology works out as expected, then SpaceX will move forward with plans to send its private space tourists around the moon late next year.

“This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and [farther] into the Solar System than any before them,” said SpaceX. The plans for the mission include sending the craft deeper into space once it passes the moon. It would then loop back to Earth. This is not just a big move for humans in space, but for space tourism as well.

Of course, human space travel also has a long history of setbacks and missed deadlines. It will be an impressive feat if SpaceX can actually launch its moon mission on time in 2018.

Space tourists of the past

The International Space Station hosted a series of paying space tourists during the 2000s. Those people hitched rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a reported cost of around $20 million per trip. The trips were brokered through the space tourism company Space Adventures, which also offered add-ons like a spacewalk and visit extension, reportedly at an extra cost of $15 million.

SpaceX hasn’t released the pricing for its moonshot, but it’s probably high enough to send all but the wealthiest people into sticker shock. To get an idea of the expense of space travel, we can look at how NASA handles the deal. The U.S. space agency buys seats for its astronauts on Russian spacecraft at a price of around $80 million each to get them to the International Space Station.

All told, seven space tourists took their unusual vacations on the space station, with the most recent traveling in 2009. Those ambitious space visitors included a series of successful businesspeople who could afford the expensive journey after making their fortunes in industries ranging from video games to investment management.

Getting to the space station as a tourist wasn’t as easy as just hopping on a spaceship and going. Participants had to pass health and fitness tests and train for the rigors of both spaceflight and microgravity. SpaceX announced its tourists will also undergo health and fitness tests and are expected to start training for the trip later in 2017, which would give them about a year’s worth of training time before they take flight.

If all goes as planned, then the SpaceX moon mission should spark a lot of interest from the general public. “Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” said SpaceX. That’s a grand statement, but it’s also pretty accurate considering Earth hasn’t seen a thrill quite like this since all the way back in 1972.

Where next after the moon?

SpaceX doesn’t plan to rest on its laurels after pulling off a successful moon mission. The company said it has interest from other potential space tourists, which could mean more moon missions for starters. On a grander scale, the company has its sights set on the distant planet Mars.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a vision of making humans an interplanetary species, though landing (and sustaining) people on Mars is a far cry from just sending them around the moon. But SpaceX is an ambitious company. We may very well end up saying, “Today the moon, tomorrow Mars.”

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