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A return to the moon
Nearly 45 years after NASA astronauts last embarked on a lunar mission, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has announced his company's plans to send two private citizens on a flight around the moon in 2018. The weeklong trip will look a lot like NASA's historic Apollo 8 mission — the first and only purely circumlunar, crewed mission in history — but SpaceX's mission will fly with two crewmembers instead of three, and will use a fresh new spacecraft and launch vehicle. Read on to see what SpaceX's lunar adventure will entail.
Up first: Launch
LaunchSlide 2 of 19
SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the crewed Dragon 2 spacecraft to the moon. The rocket and crew capsule have not flown on any missions yet. But the Falcon Heavy is slated to blast off for its first test launch this summer, and the Dragon 2 will make its first test flight in November. [VIDEO: SpaceX to the Moon - 2018 a Lofty Goal?]
The Falcon Heavy is a variation of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which was made to carry the uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to and from the International Space Station. With two extra boosters strapped to its sides, the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket to blast off since NASA's Saturn rockets, which were retired in the early 1970s.
Up next: To the moon!Slide 3 of 19
Cruise to the moonSlide 4 of 19
Cruise to the moon
In all, SpaceX's lunar mission will last approximately one week, Musk said in a phone conference, so it might take two to three days to get to the moon. When the Apollo 8 astronauts successfully entered lunar orbit, they had been traveling for two days and 21 hours. On average, the moon is 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away from Earth.
The trip will likely involve at least one midcourse correction to keep the spacecraft heading in the right direction. Because the spacecraft will be mostly automated, the passengers will likely spend the duration of the trip sitting still and waiting — and looking out the windows! Just in case anything goes wrong, though, the crew will be trained to handle emergency procedures and could possibly have to do some manual flight operations.
Up next: Skimming the surfaceSlide 5 of 19
Skimming the surfaceSlide 6 of 19
Skimming the surface
Musk said the crewed Dragon spacecraft "would skim the surface of the moon" before heading "further out into deep space." The spacecraft won't literally touch the lunar surface, though. When Apollo 8 made its closest approach to the moon, the astronauts were at an altitude of 68.2 miles (110 km) above the lunar surface. This close approach happened 73 hours and 35 minutes into the mission as the spacecraft's engines briefly ignited to round out the orbit. This resulted in a nearly circular orbit at an altitude of about 70 miles (112 km).
Up next: Loop-de-loopSlide 7 of 19
Loop around the moonSlide 8 of 19