On Monday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that for the first time in history, it will be sending two private citizens on a trip around the Moon, in a Dragon 2 spacecraft. Because sending untrained civilians into space apparently isn’t enough of a gamble, Musk added that this mission would be taking place in Q4 of 2018. As an added reminder for emphasis, that’s next year. Another reminder: SpaceX has yet to send any humans into space, period.
While the prospect of space tourism is certainly exciting, a few salient questions remain. For one thing, who are these mysterious moneybags with (probably) hundreds of millions to blow on a week-long space sojourn? All we know about them is that, according to Musk, they’ve already given SpaceX a “significant deposit.” But more importantly, how the hell will this pair prepare for a mission that would take professional astronauts years of training? The answers to these questions are¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, respectively.
There are a variety of reasons the thought of sending untrained civilians into space should give us pause. To even be considered for NASA’s astronaut candidate programme, a person must meet physical and educational requirements, which these two affluent astronauts may or may not meet. According to NASA, if a person does not have a bachelor’s degree in “engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics,” they will not be considered, period. On top of that, the candidate’s degree “must be followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience or at least 1,000 pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft.”
These requirements, albeit intimidating, are important because frankly, spaceflight is a shit show. If something goes wrong, and things often do, astronauts have to be able to think on their feet and make complex decisions, which often involve some amount of science or engineering.
Beyond the educational requirements, all candidates for the American space program must additionally undergo a series of physical examinations, and, if selected, they’ll train for approximately two years at NASA’S Johnson Space Center. This is where the fun begins, per NASA’s official Astronaut Selection and Training site:
As part of the Astronaut Candidate training program, candidates are required to complete military water survival before beginning their flying syllabus, and become SCUBA qualified to prepare them for spacewalk training. Consequently, all Astronaut Candidates are required to pass a swimming test during their first month of training. They must swim 3 lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swim 3 lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes with no time limit. They must also tread water continuously for 10 minutes wearing a flight suit.
After a candidate completes basic training, they may or may not be assigned to a specific mission, which they will spend even more time training for. In addition to training for microgravity, learning about robotics and more, astronauts who will be piloting a spacecraft are required to fly for 15 hours per month in NASA’s fleet of two-seat T38 jets. Even non-pilot astronauts must fly a minimum of four hours per month.
Artist’s rendition of SpaceX’s proposed “Interplanetary Transport System.” (Image: SpaceX Flickr)
It is wildly unlikely that SpaceX’s wealthy space enthusiasts meet most of NASA’s astronaut requirements, never mind all of them. And Mark Shelhamer, former Chief Scientist for the NASA Human Research Program, is pretty unconvinced they can be caught up to speed by late next year.
“I applaud Musk’s efforts and his enthusiasm and what he’s accomplished,” Shelhamer told Gizmodo. “But sending two amateurs to the moon in a new spacecraft on a new rocket, in less than two years? It won’t happen.”
While it’s true that hypothetically, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon 2 spacecraft will have flown a few times before this trip to the Moon takes place, the only thing predictable about spaceflight is that it’s not. Like, ever.
“There’s one thing I know about human space flight, and that is that the unexpected happens all the time,” Shelhamer explained. “That’s why we send professional astronauts, who are highly skilled and extensively trained. Especially with new hardware, which this flight would make use of, you need people who can deal with anomalies and emergencies. That’s what professionals do. That’s why the first astronauts were test pilots.”
As an example of how years of technical training can be life-saving, take the Apollo 13 mission. A damaged oxygen tank left the crew in a life or death situation, so the astronauts had to move into the lunar module and scrap together some parts aboard the ship to make a crude carbon dioxide scrubber in order to breathe.
Obviously, we’ve made incredible advancements in space technology since the Apollo era, but that doesn’t mean getting to the Moon is easy or without risk. While SpaceX has made several successful (and uncrewed) trips to the ISS, that’s not necessarily a sign that a mission around the moon—crewed or not—will go over well.
“Getting to the moon is a lot harder than getting to ISS,” Shelhamer said. “I don’t see it.”
Image: SpaceX Flickr
All this said, Elon Musk doesn’t seem to be fretting over the safety and preparedness of his Moon tourists too much.
“It will certainly be risky,” Musk told Gizmodo in a Twitter DM when asked about training for space tourists, as well as health and safety concerns. “Although we will have flown Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 many times, this will be our first deep space trip with people.” If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will fly an uncrewed Dragon 2 to the ISS by the end of this year. Then, in 2018, it plans to send its first crewed Dragon 2 the ISS, followed by this moon excursion.
Musk declined to answer specific questions about what sort of physical or psychological training the SpaceX tourists will have to undergo, or how this will compare with NASA’s astronaut training program, although he did say there will be another round of news on this “in a few months.”
“If health checks are good (no heart conditions particularly) and they have good bone density, as there will be some bone density loss in zero g, which is regained on the ground, most of the risk is probably reentry or having to deal with a system malfunction in deep space when passing through the deep shadow of the moon, where we may lose comms briefly,” Musk said.
“There’s one thing I know about human space flight, and that is that the unexpected happens all the time.”
While it’s promising that SpaceX is at least conscious of the health risks involved with spaceflight, bone density is really scratching the surface of the potential health complications. The first results from NASA’s twin study, which is analysing astronauts brothers Scott and Mark Kelly, found that Scott’s body was impacted by spaceflight all the way down to his chromosomes. While he was in space for a year—which is much longer than SpaceX’s Moon passengers will be—other understudied effects of spaceflight may start to manifest quickly.
For instance, it was recently revealed that the shape of astronauts’ brains change due to spaceflight. Even astronauts who spent just two weeks aboard the ISS showed fluctuations in the volume of their brain’s grey matter, which is responsible for key functions like muscle control, memory, and emotions. Scientists involved in this studies are still unsure what it could mean for a person’s long-term health.
All of this is to say, it is radically unlikely that these two people are prepared for spaceflight, nor that they can be caught up to speed in a little over a year. Still, when you consider Musk’s ultimate goal of sending ordinary people by the thousands to and from Mars, his desire to send a few willing guinea pigs into space soon makes a lot of sense. If we’re ever going to become a ‘multi-planetary’ species as Musk imagines, we’re going to have to accept the idea of private citizens shouldering considerable spaceflight risks.
And to be completely fair, SpaceX’s Moon tourists may well receive some rigorous health screening and training—we just have no idea what that looks like yet. It’s also entirely possible the mission could get delayed, which is business as usual for all spaceflight, but especially for Musk’s his endeavours.
While many of us want to go to space one day, we should do it responsibly. We have many years to infest and destroy the rest of the solar system.