Elon Musk and SpaceX don’t have a reputation of taking small steps. For the private space company, bigger is better. The next big step? Musk plans to send two private passengers on a one week journey around the moon some time next year.
The passengers have made sizable investments in the company and are “serious” about making the trip. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will carry the two intrepid travelers. A Falcon Heavy rocket will carry the capsule into Earth orbit. One of the things that makes the journey so ambitious is that the Falcon Heavy has yet to launch on an operational flight. That there will be few successful launches before this moon shot, has to raise the pucker factor of the two passengers up a few notches.
What is the Falcon Heavy?
Previously called the Falcon 9 Heavy, the Falcon Heavy will be the heaviest (in terms of payload capacity) operational launch vehicle in the world. It has three “cores,” each essentially the lower stage of a Falcon (the current version) rocket. At liftoff, the nine Merlin engines mounted on each (27 total) will produce 5,130,000 pounds of force. At their peak, they will produce roughly 5,500,000 pounds high in the atmosphere. For purposes of comparison, the Space Shuttle’s main engines produced 750,000 pounds each (times 3 = 2,500,000 pounds) at lift off, and the solid rocket boosters produced 1.5 million pounds each (times 2 = 3,000,000 pounds) for a total of about 5,500,000 pounds, or just above (roughly equal to) what the Falcon Heavy produces at sea level.
The Falcon Heavy has a payload capacity of about 120,000 pounds to low Earth orbit (LEO), or roughly twice what the Space Shuttle could carry into orbit. The reason for this is that the Falcon doesn’t have all that weight dedicated to the orbiter that the Space Shuttle did. Instead, for this journey, the launch vehicle will carry SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which will serve as the habitation for the two passengers.
Is There Really a Dark Side of the Moon?
The moon is tidally locked, which means that the same side always faces the Earth. Once the nature of the moon was known, people referred to it as the “dark side of the moon” not because it was always dark, but rather that it was unknown. It has also grown to include the fact that communications are blocked when the Moon is between Earth and a spacecraft. It receives roughly the same amount of light as the side that always faces us – “roughly” because our side loses some light due to rare lunar eclipses caused when the Earth passes directly between the Sun and Moon. Our moon is hardly unique in this regard, most other moons in our solar system are tidally locked. To learn more about some of these moons, and their likelihoods of harboring life, check out my ebook Out There: The Ten Most Likely Places to Find Life in Our Solar System, available on Amazon or for free if you sign up for my email newsletter.
This mission will be a risky one. The capsule has never carried human passengers, and the Falcon Heavy has yet to launch and will have few flights under its belt by the time the mission comes to pass. With the mishap of the Falcon rocket on the launch pad last year that destroyed the vehicle and damaged the pad, one has to wonder whether the Falcon Heavy will be ready for manned flight. I’m sure the lawyers on all sides are making sure they’re covered.