Elon Musk’s SpaceX Delays Plans for First Space Tourists to Circle Moon

SpaceX has indicated it won’t launch a pair of space tourists to loop around the moon this year as previously announced, the latest sign that technical and production challenges are disrupting founder Elon Musk’s ambitious plans for human exploration of the solar system.

A new timetable for the flight—now postponed until at least mid-2019 and likely longer—hasn’t been released by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name of the closely held company.

Over the weekend, company spokesman James Gleeson confirmed the private moon launch has been postponed, without indicating when it might occur. “SpaceX is still planning to fly private individuals around the moon and there is growing interest from many customers,” he said in an email.

The delay comes amid SpaceX’s own projections of a nearly 40% drop in launches next year from as many as 28 anticipated for all of 2018. The decline primarily reflects a continuing global slump in manufacturing orders and launch contracts for large commercial satellites.

Partly as a result, SpaceX also is confronting growing industry doubts about market demand for its Falcon Heavy rocket, the company’s newest and biggest launcher, which had its maiden blastoff in March. “People don’t think it’s serious enough yet to figure out how to use it,” Thomas Mueller, SpaceX’s chief propulsion technology officer, said in May, speaking to attendees on the sidelines of a space conference in Los Angeles. Mr. Mueller declined to elaborate or respond to questions.

Industry officials and SpaceX competitors have said the latest variant of the company’s smaller Falcon 9 rocket—upgraded to provide substantially more thrust than earlier versions—is capable of putting most of the current generation of large and small satellites into required orbits.

Regardless of when tourist voyages start, Mr. Musk and his team already have revolutionized the launch industry by accomplishing two goals that historically were considered virtually impossible: SpaceX has slashed rocket prices with the Falcon 9 and pioneered fully reusable main stages, including engines. The company seeks to refly those parts 10 times with minimal refurbishment.

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled from Florida on Monday, carrying a commercial satellite for Luxembourg-based SES SA. It would be the company’s 11th launch of 2018.

But Mr. Musk’s vision of quickly using the Falcon Heavy for moon missions has been upended. In February 2017, Mr. Musk announced with some fanfare that before the end of 2018, SpaceX intended to send two paying customers around the moon and back to earth using an automated Dragon capsule launched by the company’s most powerful rocket. The passengers were never identified, but the company said they already had paid “a significant deposit” and preparations were under way for health tests and training for the estimated weeklong trip.

At the time, SpaceX anticipated completing unmanned flight tests of the enhanced Dragon capsule, and then repeatedly transporting astronauts to and from the international space station, before using it to carry any paying passengers deeper into the cosmos. But that schedule has now slipped, with the company telling the National Aeronautics and Space Administration it is targeting the first astronaut test flight no earlier than December 2018. Congressional investigators have said that could drag well into 2019, with approval for routine operational flights coming many months later.

Mr. Gleeson, the company spokesman, indicated private missions around the moon and elsewhere, presenting an opportunity for humans “to travel faster and farther into the solar system than any before them,” amount to “an important milestone as we work toward our ultimate goal” of establishing large-scale settlements on Mars. Mr. Musk has talked about first establishing a base on the lunar surface.

Some industry experts and analysts see huge risks for SpaceX from potentially suffering a major malfunction, or even fatal accident, involving tourists, before its Dragon capsule is certified to fly NASA astronauts into orbit.

“SpaceX faces much higher stakes” than carrying paying passengers as soon as it envisioned, according to Charles Miller, a consultant and space entrepreneur who served on President Donald Trump’s transition team for NASA. “Company leaders can’t risk” sacrificing the agency’s trust or “prompting hearings before Congress” if there is a catastrophic problem on a private mission, he said in an interview.

Mr. Musk hasn’t signaled interest in soliciting federal funds to help defray the cost of tourist flights, even as the Trump administration has made public-private partnerships the centerpiece of its drive to accelerate space exploration. Around the time Mr. Trump came into office, Mr. Miller and other NASA transition team participants drafted a memo that sketched out plans, among other things, for “private American astronauts, on private space ships” to circle the moon as early as 2020. More recently, the agency has rolled out a multiyear blueprint promoting small private lunar landers, and then transitioning to joint industry-government efforts to develop manned vehicles.

Renowned for pushing employees and managers by setting ambitious goals that often end up being unattainable, Mr. Musk has a history of missed deadlines involving the Falcon Heavy. Not only was it several years late in blasting off in March, but the high-profile flight coincided with market shifts toward dramatically smaller satellites requiring rockets with less power.

With more than five million pounds of thrust, the Falcon Heavy is particularly suited to carry extra-large commercial satellites and propel the heaviest military or spy spacecraft into hard-to-reach orbits. But the rocket still must demonstrate its reliability before Pentagon brass will put the most expensive spy satellites on it.

SpaceX, for its part, is betting that in the next few years, the Falcon Heavy will become more broadly competitive due to anticipated retirements of ultrareliable, legacy U.S. and European launchers.

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But for corporate customers at this point, existing Falcon 9 upgrades have “eliminated much of the commercial need for the Falcon Heavy,” according to Mr. Miller. The SpaceX spokesman declined to comment

The Southern California-based company has three commercial Falcon Heavy launches listed on a roughly $10-billion manifest that totals 40 missions.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said in an MSNBC interview last month that she expected about 18 launches overall in 2019, comparable to 2017. That would be sharply off internal company targets prepared in early 2016.

Documents circulated to prospective investors during that period projected SpaceX’s launch rate climbing to more than 40 in 2018 and 52 the year after. The 2019 total included eight Falcon Heavy missions and 20 launches dedicated entirely to deploying a proposed SpaceX satellite constellation.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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