ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It may soon be time to start saving your frequent-flyer miles for a trip to the moon. For the first time, a private company, SpaceX, has paying customers for a trip to the moon. And while we don't know the price tag, it is likely in the millions. SpaceX founder Elon Musk made the announcement yesterday and told reporters the mission will launch next year.
Here to talk us through this ambitious plan is NPR Science Correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Hi, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: Explain how this mission would work. Do they actually land on the moon? Can they get out and walk around?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: No, no, there'll be no landing. It's a completely automated mission, so they don't even have to pilot it. So the idea is a rocket would take up a capsule. The capsule would loop around the moon, sort of skim its surface without landing and then return to the Earth.
SHAPIRO: Completely automated - so, like, if something goes wrong, the two tourists are the only people who can fix the problem.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's not really clear. Elon Musk said they're setting up a deep space communication network, so presumably ground controllers can talk to this thing. Whether someone from SpaceX, like a tech support person, would fly with them, that is not clear yet. We don't have a lot of details on this. I mean the announcement was made in a 15-minute teleconference yesterday, so it was not a highly detailed plan.
SHAPIRO: Has SpaceX ever sent anyone to space at all, tourists or otherwise?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: No. And so in the commercial space business, a lot of companies come and go. And they announce bold plans. And you know, there's a lot of skepticism. But SpaceX is a little bit different because they actually have a track record of doing stuff in space. They've never sent people, but they do send satellites up into space.
And SpaceX was actually the first private company to ever have a spacecraft dock with the International Space Station. So SpaceX has contracts to take cargo to the space station for NASA. And next year, they're supposed to start taking astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Now, this moon mission would go on a different rocket. SpaceX is building a bigger rocket, and it's never flown yet. So its first launch is expected to happen this summer.
SHAPIRO: Is NASA just totally out of the moon game? It's been about 45 years since they sent anyone to the moon.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA is building its own big rocket and its own capsule. This is called the Space Launch System. And it was going to have its first test flight next year. It was going to have nobody on it. It was going to be just an un-crewed mission.
But now NASA is actually studying whether it would be feasible to put people on the first flight of that rocket. And that would also go around the moon. And now NASA's saying it's looking into the possibility of doing that. But that would shift that mission back to 2019.
SHAPIRO: This makes it sound like it's another space race. But instead of Americans and the Soviets, it's a space race between NASA and private companies.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It sounds a little bit like that. The only thing to know is that these two entities work together. So SpaceX has gotten a lot of money from NASA. It's got contracts with NASA. And at least on the surface, NASA is very supportive of SpaceX efforts. They put out a statement yesterday saying NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher. And Elon Musk at SpaceX has said that if NASA wants to sort of have priority to do a moon mission, it would give NASA priority to do the same mission first as its customer.
SHAPIRO: Humans have been around the moon. Humans have walked on the moon. What's the scientific value in going back to the moon decades later?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, so I mean this loop around the moon mission - we did that in 1968. That was the famous Apollo 8 mission where they broadcast a message back from the moon at Christmastime. So in some ways, you could say, well, so what? We've already done it. But we haven't done it in 45 years.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And if you want to start going back out into space, you've got to start somewhere. And going around the moon and back is actually - you know, as space missions go, it's, quote, unquote, "easy" compared to, say, landing on the moon or going to Mars or going to an asteroid.
SHAPIRO: So bottom line, do you think humans will return to the moon next year?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Next year, that would be a pretty ambitious deadline. But you know, with both NASA and SpaceX having the same goal to do a mission around the moon, in the next few years, I wouldn't bet against it.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO SONG, "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.