First U.S. space tourism mission since 2001 could launch by end of 2016

The first U.S. space tourism mission since 2001 could be in the works by the end of this year, NASA announced Thursday.

A rocket built by Florida-based Space Exploration Technologies is slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and make the first-ever soft landing on the moon. NASA officials said the SpaceX rocket, the first to use recycled technology, would carry a nearly-new United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket to orbit. From there, it would deploy several commercial and defense payloads, including an unmanned Dragon spacecraft carrying supplies and payloads like Earth observation cameras and cutting-edge scientific instruments.

The successful landing and rendezvous of the Dragon spacecraft on the moon’s surface, if successful, could lead to new private space tourism endeavors by 2018, NASA officials said.

“The Lunar Landing Demo Mission at the end of 2018 will enable private industry to execute its vision of putting U.S. boots on the moon,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “Our partnership with private industry will advance our research and foster commercial development, and it will enable U.S. citizens to explore beyond our nation’s borders.”

The landing demo could be the first of four this decade from the Taurus-Littrow lander and Orbiting Laboratory. Previous landings would go back to 1998.

Atlas V and Taurus-Littrow are expected to replace the Saturn V rocket and Apollo-era lunar landers as the main source of transporting people and cargo to the moon.

NASA’s JPL space center in Pasadena, Calif., as well as its Kennedy Space Center launch complex in Cape Canaveral, is scheduled to host the landings and subsequent exploration. Since the Apollo era in the early 1960s, only Russia’s Federal Space Agency and China have undertaken lunar missions.

The SpaceX goal is to add to an already growing private space industry.

JPL’s mission in particular could lead to the development of a new class of moon landing vehicles and landers, such as an air and rocket landing that would ease development of lunar flight, NASA officials said. At the press conference Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, former Jet Propulsion Laboratory Deputy Director Michael Gazarik and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk all referred to this sort of vehicle as the “new moon-lander.”

“That could also enable us to fly humans to the moon in eight to 10 years,” said SpaceX Chief Technology Officer Davide de Martinis.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion NASA contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and the company is also scheduled to deliver a Dragon capsule with nearly 1,000 pounds of supplies to the orbiting laboratory in December.

In January of this year, the Obama administration announced its plans to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2025, a long-term goal, and in response NASA announced a partnership with the private sector, SpaceX and Boeing to develop new space vehicles that would transport astronauts to the International Space Station, and possibly eventually to asteroids and Mars.

Bolden said “a manned moon mission” could help mitigate the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars. The cheaper cost of that mission would be part of the goals of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is intended to create commercial space vehicles capable of supporting human missions, without taking away from support for the International Space Station and its crew.

“If we can demonstrate the capability to land on the moon, we would more quickly advance our efforts for interplanetary exploration,” Bolden said.

Earlier this year, SpaceX successfully re-launched and landed a second Falcon 9 rocket, the same mission that successfully delivered a Dragon capsule to the space station in April.

Thursday’s news conference was sponsored by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and co-founders of Boom Technology, Marc Raibert and Eron Shoenfeld.

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