The announcement is yet another bold declaration by SpaceX, the leader of a host of other entrepreneurial commercial space ventures that have ended governments’ long-standing monopoly on space.
Musk is famous for laying out ambitious timelines and goals—he ultimately plans to colonize Mars, for example— that often get pushed back. SpaceX has never flown people before, and has had two of its rockets blow up in the last two years. Some think this mission, aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket, which has yet to fly, could be delayed as well.
But Musk has also had a string of successes that have upended that traditional space industry. The company has had a long running partnership with NASA, which has pumped millions of dollars into SpaceX, hiring it to fly cargo and eventually crews to the International Space Station.
While President Trump has yet to name a new NASA administrator, there are signs that his administration also wants to continue to work with the private sector, and companies are sensing a huge opportunity on a potential lunar mission.
In a call with reporters, Musk said he is not in competition with the government space agency, and that if NASA wanted to partner on the lunar mission that would take priority over the two private individuals.
“What matters is the advancement of space exploration and exceeding the high-water mark that was set in 1969 with the Apollo program,” he said. “And having a really exciting future in space that inspires the world.”
In a blog post, he said the mission “presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years, and they will travel faster and further into the Solar System than any before them.”
Musk has met with Trump or his associates several times, first in New York and later in the White House. Trump has indicated interest in doing something bold in space; during the transition, he spoke with historian Douglas Brinkley about President Kennedy’s vow to go to the moon.
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University, said of Musk, “He’s in pretty close contact with the White House folks. Who’s whispering in who’s ear?”
Others in the industry also sense an opening.
“With the new administration, regardless of what you think politically, comes a new sense of commercial partnerships which is good for us in the space industry,” said Bob Richards, the chief executive of Moon Express, a private company that plans to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon this year in a race to claim the Google Lunar X Prize.
“I feel, as many do, a lunar tide rising. The political environment is catching up with logic” with the moon as an important step for even deeper space exploration, he said.
A SpaceX mission in 2018 would likely circle the moon before NASA gets another chance. NASA recently announced that it is considering adding astronauts to the first flight of its Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. That flight, originally scheduled to fly without humans in 2018, would also circle the moon. But as the space agency seeks to move faster under the Trump administration, it is now studying the feasibility of adding crews to the mission, which would then occur by 2019, officials have said.
“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher," the agency said in a statement released by spokesman Bob Jacobs.
Phil Larson, a former space policy adviser to President Obama who went to work for SpaceX and is now at the University of Colorado, said Musk’s announcement was timely, given that the new administration has to decide what to do with NASA and its human spaceflight program.
“This goes to show that America’s commercial space industry is ready to go beyond Low Earth Orbit, not in 10 years but now,” Larson said.
James Muncy, an analyst at the consultancy PoliSpace who also is a lobbyist for SpaceX, said SpaceX’s announcement could alter NASA’s plans. A crewed flight by 2019 would be enormously expensive, he said. Now, NASA could remain on its original timetable.
SpaceX’s lunar mission is yet another in a series of grand plans announced by SpaceX. Since Musk founded it in 2002, it has made one bold proclamation after another, often earning jeers from skeptics who say that he moves too fast in an industry that demands caution.
While it has had two of its rockets blow up, Musk said Monday that the company’s “success rate is actually quite high.”
Still he acknowledged the dangers of the mission.
The passengers “are entering this with their eyes open, knowing that there is some risk here” he said. “They are certainly not naïve. We’ll do everything we can to minimize that risk. But it’s not zero.”
But while many of his plans face delays, Musk has pulled off several noteworthy successes—from becoming the first private company to fly to the International Space Station, and the first to ever to land the first stage of a rocket that had lifted a payload into orbit.
Along with Boeing, SpaceX has a contract to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. While the Government Accountability Office recently reported that both companies could face delay, SpaceX has maintained that it is on track for the first crewed mission by the middle of next year, which would then come about six months before the private lunar flight.
Musk has said the company would be able to fly humans to Mars by 2025.
“Elon’s at it again,” Logsdon said. “It is typical Musk bravado.”
But Logsdon said a mission that would orbit the moon and return is not far-fetched, though the Dragon capsule would need to be modified.
“Circumlunar is not that hard, because if you get the trajectory right, it’s free return,” he said. “It’s like throwing a baseball up high with the right velocity and angle, it will come back to where it started. You don’t have to do much navigation or have propulsion.”
Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama, expressed doubt that SpaceX could pull off a lunar mission in just the next couple of years, but said it could possibly be done by 2020, and that it would be “fantastic.”
“It would show that we, in this country, are still in space, and innovating and exploring and capturing the excitement that we have. I think it would be very positive,” Garver said.