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The Phantom Lunar Dragon
by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Aug 23, 2017

Artwork depicting the crewed Dragon spaceship docked at the ISS

In February, SpaceX announced plans to send a crewed Dragon capsule on a private circumlunar mission in late 2018. The announcement caught most of the space community by surprise. It was a bold plan for a company that hasn't even flown astronauts into Earth orbit, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk is famous for thinking big.

The circumlunar mission was tame compared to his bold plan to colonize Mars, which has received so much attention. Also, much of the groundwork was well established for the lunar mission.

SpaceX has already flown several uncrewed Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station. The Falcon Heavy rocket that would be used for a lunar mission was also in development, and draws on the design heritage of the highly successful Falcon 9 rocket.

So SpaceX could probably do such a mission in the near future, even if the announced timeframe was too tight. Give them a few more years, and such a mission could be feasible.

Since then, SpaceX has been silent on the subject. The Dragon capsule that would be needed for such a flight is slipping in its development schedule. Recently, SpaceX changed plans for a powered Dragon landing with rocket thrusters to a conventional parachute-aided splashdown, just like current Dragon cargo spacecraft.

We don't really know when the first astronauts will ride aboard a Dragon capsule, as the schedule keeps changing. Currently, it's slated for some time in 2018. But SpaceX can't really send astronauts to the Moon without such a test flight. Even if the Dragon carries its first crew on time, scheduling for a lunar mission would be very tight.

We are also awaiting the debut of the new Falcon Heavy rocket. If all goes well, it should make its first flight before the end of this year. It's highly probable that the maiden launch of this big launch vehicle will work, but we can't really be sure. A loss of the vehicle or an underperformance of its thrust levels will set the program back.

All things considered, it would seem difficult for SpaceX to send astronauts to the Moon in 2018. The announcement seemed overly ambitious when it was originally made. As problems arise at SpaceX, it seems increasingly unrealistic.

That's not to suggest that this mission can't be done at some point. Once SpaceX has chalked up considerable experience with a debugged Falcon Heavy rocket and crewed Dragon spacecraft, the mission will be feasible. But reaching that point will take time.

SpaceX should really say something about this. They should admit that the project won't meet its original deadline. They should also tell us if the Lunar Dragon is still a going concern. We would really like to know. Elon Musk is not afraid to speak his mind. It's time for him to step up to the podium again.

We all want to see humanity return to the Moon. SpaceX is well on the way to achieving this goal. But it's time for some hard facts to set into the program and the publicity.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.

SpaceX launches super-computer to space station
Miami (AFP) Aug 13, 2017
SpaceX on Monday blasted off its unmanned Dragon cargo ship toward the International Space Station, carrying a host of science experiments and the most powerful computer ever sent into orbit. "Three, two, one, and liftoff," a SpaceX commentator said as the white Falcon 9 rocket climbed into the blue sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida at 12:31 pm (1631 GMT). Three minutes after launch, the rocket separated as planned, with the long, tall portion -- known as the first stage -- arcing back toward Earth and the second stage continuing to propel the cargo ship to space. ... read more

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