The grandest tour

THE $30m Google Lunar XPRIZE has had a slow time of it. Set up in 2007, it originally required competitors to land robots on the Moon by 2012. But the interest in returning to the Moon that the prize sought to catalyse did not quickly materialise; faced with a dearth of likely winners, the XPRIZE Foundation was forced to push back its deadline again and again. Now, though, five competing teams have launch contracts to get their little marvels to the Moon by the end of this year. And as those robotic explorers head into the final straight, a new contest is opening up.

On February 27th Elon Musk said that SpaceX, his aerospace company, had agreed to send two paying customers around the Moon some time in 2018, using a new (and as yet untried) version of its Falcon rocket, the Falcon Heavy. They would be the first people to travel beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972. Two weeks before Mr Musk’s announcement, NASA said it was considering using the first flight of its new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS; also untested), to do something similar, though with astronauts, not paying tourists. The race, it seems, is on.

This is not, though, a simple story of private sector versus public. For one thing, SpaceX can offer such a trip only thanks to NASA’s previous largesse. The company’s Dragon space capsule, in which the Moon tourists would fly, was developed to carry first cargo and, soon, people up to the International Space Station—services for which NASA pays generously. For another, NASA might end up deciding to pay SpaceX for its Moon jollies, just as it pays for rides to the space station.

In January an adviser to Donald Trump sent an e-mail to senior Republicans interested in space policy suggesting an “internal competition between Old Space and New Space” at the agency to get people back to lunar orbit. “Old Space” almost certainly meant the in-house SLS effort; “New Space” probably means SpaceX—or possibly Blue Origin, a company owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, which is also working on a suitably big rocket. A New Space option would seem to make budgetary sense. Though the Falcon Heavy needed for SpaceX’s Moon trip has yet to fly, it is certain to be far cheaper than the SLS. But the SLS has a great deal of support in the Senate—and there are some in Washington who have their doubts about making the country’s space programme too dependent on sometimes capricious billionaires.

The new administration has yet to weigh in—or to appoint a NASA administrator. But its ambitions may have been hinted at when Mr Trump evoked some of the wonders the United States might achieve by the time of its sestercentenary in this week’s speech to Congress: “American footprints on distant worlds,” he said, “are not too big a dream.” The only distant world any foot will be leaving prints on by 2026 is the Moon.

Such feet do not have to be American. China sent a rover called Yutu to the Moon in 2013, and plans a mission to return rocks to Earth this year. The idea of landing people on the Moon by 2030, or perhaps even earlier, has been discussed in public. That brings the possibility of yet another race.

In all such races it would be wise, as the XPRIZE shows, to expect delays. The crew-carrying version of the Dragon is not expected to make its first flight to the space station until the middle of 2018 at the earliest: sending one around the Moon by the end of that year is a tall order. That said, SpaceX’s customers may not mind if the schedule slips to 2019—the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing would add yet more pizzazz to what is sure to be a very high-profile venture.

Who the purchasers of this pizzazz might be is not yet known, though one, at least, must be very rich. One possibility is Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist on SpaceX’s board. Another is the film-maker James Cameron, who directed “Avatar”, the most profitable film ever made. Mr Cameron has already plumbed the Mariana Trench in a submersible; in 2011 he showed interest in a privately funded Russian mission to the Moon. Having such a film-maker on board would certainly ensure that the trip was spectacularly documented. With the right lenses, he might even pick out the tiny XPRIZE rovers as he flashes by.