On Monday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that they would be sending two anonymous citizens to the moon for the first time in history by a Dragon 2 spacecraft in the last quarter of the next year. While the announcement managed to accelerate many heartbeats; it also triggered an eyebrow-raising contest with people being ultra-skeptical about the logistics and dangers of the proposition.
Fly me to the moon … Okhttps://t.co/6QT8m5SHwn
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 27, 2017
To put things into perspective, the NASA’s astronaut candidate program requires an applicant to meet strict physical and educational requirements. According to NASA, the applicant needs to have at least a bachelor’s degree in “engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics,” before even being put into consideration. On top of that, the candidate’s degree
“must be followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience or at least 1,000 pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft.”
These requirements are not there just to make NASA look like a league of elites. It has been designed considering the perilous and life-threatening conditions in the space, where the astronauts will have to think on their feet and make complex decisions involving some amount of science or engineering.
After the educational requirements, all candidates must additionally undergo a rigorous series of physical examinations followed by a two-year training at NASA’S Johnson Space Center. NASA’s official Astronaut Selection and Training site writes,
As part of the Astronaut Candidate training program, candidates are required to complete military water survival before beginning their flying syllabus, and become SCUBA qualified to prepare them for spacewalk training. Consequently, all Astronaut Candidates are required to pass a swimming test during their first month of training. They must swim 3 lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swim 3 lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes with no time limit. They must also tread water continuously for 10 minutes wearing a flight suit.
Even after the completion of the basic training, the candidate may or may not be assigned to a specific mission. While they wait for their turns, they spend even more time at the training center performing tasks like bracing for microgravity, learning about robotics and piloting a spacecraft for 15 hours per month in NASA’s fleet of two-seat T38 jets.
While we are still speculating, it is highly unlikely that SpaceX’s wealthy space enthusiasts meet all of these NASA’s astronaut requirements. Mark Shelhamer, former Chief Scientist for the NASA Human Research Program, also thinks that putting the prospective people up to speed by next year will be pretty difficult.
“I applaud Musk’s efforts and his enthusiasm and what he’s accomplished,” Shelhamer told Gizmodo. “But sending two amateurs to the moon in a new spacecraft on a new rocket, in less than two years? It won’t happen.”
“There’s one thing I know about human space flight, and that is that the unexpected happens all the time. That’s why we send professional astronauts, who are highly skilled and extensively trained. Especially with new hardware, which this flight would make use of, you need people who can deal with anomalies and emergencies. That’s what professionals do. That’s why the first astronauts were test pilots.”
Having said that, Elon Musk doesn’t seem to be too wary about the safety and preparedness of the Moon tourists. When talking about the mission, Musk told Gizmodo,
“It will certainly be risky. Although we will have flown Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 many times, this will be our first deep space trip with people. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will fly an uncrewed Dragon 2 to the ISS by the end of this year. Then, in 2018, we plan to send our first crewed Dragon 2 the ISS, followed by this moon excursion.”
Musk hesitated to answer specific questions about the physical or psychological training for the prospective layman astronauts, although he did dwell on some health issues,
“If health checks are good (no heart conditions particularly) and they have good bone density, as there will be some bone density loss in zero g, which is regained on the ground, most of the risk is probably reentry or having to deal with a system malfunction in deep space when passing through the deep shadow of the moon, where we may lose comms briefly,” Musk said.
While Elon’s concern with the moon visitor’s bone density is laudable; it is merely scratching the surface of the potential health complications. A case in point is the recent studies released by NASA on the twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, which concluded that Scott’s body was impacted by the spaceflight even down to his chromosomes. Another study showed how astronaut Scott Kelly aged slower than his brother on earth!
All of this proves that there is no chance that the two astronauts can be prepared for the spaceflight in a little over a year unless they had been secretly training for many years. But if we are ever going become a ‘multi-planetary’ species as Musk hopes, we will have to come to peace with the fact that private companies are going to take considerable spaceflight risks and break many safety codes in the process.
Do you think that the two newbies should be allowed to go on the space trip? Or should they also undergo the NASA’s training program? Comment below!