Some new information coming from SpaceX is generating a lot of excitement in conservative circles this week. The company sent out an announcement saying that they were ready to move beyond commercial missions of an unmanned nature shipping supplies to the International Space Station. If all goes as currently planned, they will be sending human beings not just to low Earth orbit, but all the way around the moon and back. And the real icing on the cake is that these won’t be career test pilots who have ascended to the ranks of astronauts with NASA, but rather private citizens who will be making the trip as “space tourists.” (SpaceX press release)

We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a moon mission. 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. We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year. Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow. Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results.

Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding. Falcon Heavy is due to launch its first test flight this summer and, once successful, will be the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V and more than double the thrust of the next largest launch vehicle currently flying.

I should start by saying that I am a huge fan of private space enterprise. I love the idea of having the private sector getting involved and competing with the government to advance the pace of innovation and reduce costs through the normal competitive process. Such private organizations also tend to seek out the best qualified individuals to work on these programs independent of the normal red tape concerns which envelop the bureaucracy. This is also a way to open up the admittedly exciting world of space travel to civilians while generating even more jobs and commercial activity in the private sector.

With all of that said, I read this announcement and was immediately hit with a wave of trepidation. I’ve been following the adventures of SpaceX from the beginning and along with the excitement they generate, there have been more than a few horrifying moments. Any system as complicated as this one is bound to run into some fits and starts in the beginning, even including spectacular failures. That’s no reason to abandon the effort. But this program is new enough that some of the aforementioned disasters aren’t particularly far back in the rearview mirror. It was only last September when one of their rockets exploded and a few months later, while the cause had been determined, there still seemed to be some uncertainty regarding performance issues. (Popular Science)

After SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded while being fueled for a test fire in September, the company said it would be launching again by November. It appears the skeptics were right: It’s now November, and SpaceX rockets still aren’t flying—though the company is making progress. CEO Elon Musk says the company has identified the cause of the September explosion, and the Falcon 9 could be fixed and flying by mid-December.

Yesterday Musk explained to CNBC why it took so long to get to the bottom of the explosion: “It was a really surprising problem. It’s never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.”

The rocket in question there was the Falcon Nine and they’ve been working on that one for a while. The Falcon Heavy is far more recent so it’s difficult to believe that similar questions don’t remain. I suppose my point here is to ask the question, are we really ready to put to civilians on top of a mountain of dynamite, shoot them all the way around the moon and back, landing them safely at home? Granted, these people will apparently be receiving extensive training in preparation for the mission and one assumes that if they are spending that kind of money for the trip they are going into this with their eyes open. If the worst-case scenario comes about it will be a tragedy to be certain, but nobody could say that they were somehow duped into ignoring the dangers.

The major problem in the longer scheme of things is that a potential failure on that scale would be disastrous for the future of commercial space travel. The entire program would likely be set back for years, similar to the way the space shuttle program was after the Challenger disaster. I’m not saying we should scrap this, because the potential is so vast and all of the players involved are masters of their own destiny. But that doesn’t mean I’m not exceedingly nervous and I certainly hope that they have all the bugs worked out before we take this sort of a leap into the void… literally.