SpaceX plans to launch its first paying space tourists on a multi-day trip around the moon as part of a risky, ambitious demonstration of the California-based company's high-tech new rocket, founder and CEO Elon Musk announced in a Sept. 17 press conference.
Yusaku Maezawa, the wealthy founder of Japan’s largest online fashion mall, could travel around the moon atop one of SpaceX's so-called "Big Fucking Rockets"—that's "BFR," for short—as early as 2023.
“Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon,” Maezawa explained at the press conference.
Maezawa, a world-renowned art collector, said he plans to invite six to eight artists to accompany him into space. “I have not decided which artists to invite,” Maezawa said with a laugh. “If you hear from me, please accept.”
The voyage, if successful, would make Maezawa and his fellow space tourists only the 25th to 30th or 32nd different people to travel from the Earth to the moon and back, and the first tourists to do so. The last moon mission—NASA's Apollo 17, crewed by astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt—was in December 1972.
In a Sept. 13 tweet teasing the moon-tourism announcement, SpaceX called the planned lunar joyride "an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space."
The announcement followed a tumultuous few weeks for Musk. Stocks in Musk’s electric-car company Tesla plummeted six percent after video circulated showing him smoking marijuana on a Sept. 7 episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast.
SpaceX did not disclose how much Maezawa paid for the privilege of being the 25th human being to travel to the moon. A ticket to the International Space Station, which orbits Earth at an altitude of just 150 miles, can cost up to $35 million for a space tourist. The moon, in comparison, is more than 200,000 miles from Earth.
Besides the obvious marketing value, Maezawa's trip—spanning four or five days, according to Musk—could help SpaceX refine the technology and procedures for other types of for-profit space missions. The BFR is still in development, as is the "BFS"—or, “Big Fucking Spacecraft”—that will fit atop the rocket and house the flight crew and paying customers.
SpaceX has pitched BFS for quick intercontinental travel—New York City to Tokyo in 40 minutes!—as well as for routine government space launches and, farther in the future, potential journeys to Mars while hauling a payload of up to 100 tons.
For SpaceX, Maezawa's moon voyage could be the first of many lucrative, for-profit space flights. But at his Sept. 17 announcement, Musk characterized the BFR as a civilization-saving technology. "There could be some natural event or some man-made event that ends civilization as we know it, so it's important to become as a multi-planet civilization as soon as possible,” Musk said.
Musk said he intends his giant rocket to be the vehicle that allows humankind to colonize the solar system and beyond. “BFR is really intended as an interplanetary transport system," he said.
In the short term, SpaceX’s main opportunities are nearer to Earth. "Establishing a space economy is closer than we think," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a space trade group, told The Daily Beast. "The future is now."
NASA isn't involved in the moon trip, agency spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told The Daily Beast. But Schierholz said the agency deserves credit for fostering SpaceX and other firms. "NASA helped create and for more than a decade has invested in private industry to foster a vibrant space economy in low-Earth orbit."
But all the celebration of Maezawa's planned trip could be premature. Risks abound, both in the new lunar rocket's development and in the planned moon mission itself. SpaceX will need to test the 387-feet-long BFR-and-BFS combo before it begins any real preparation for Maezawa's trip.
When it comes to rockets and spacecraft, that's not a lot of time. Delays are possible, even likely. It should come as no surprise if SpaceX ultimately cancels the trip. “Funding BFR is a key question,” Musk admitted.
NASA has awarded SpaceX contracts worth billions of dollars to supply the International Space Station and, starting in 2019, carry astronauts to the station aboard the company’s own Dragon capsule. But the government contracts alone won’t pay for BFR’s development, Musk said. “Private customers for BFR are incredibly helpful for funding the rocket.”
"I would caution against making too much of an announcement about a circumlunar flight," Roger Launius, NASA's former chief historian, told The Daily Beast. "It might happen, it might not. There has been a lot of hype about what is going to happen in space, and then we see little change as time passes."
"It's typical SpaceX, promising results on a schedule that is rarely achieved," John Logsdon, a former NASA advisor and founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast.
Even after the initial tests, the BFR and its attached spacecraft will be relatively immature technologies. Maezawa's trip to moon likely won't be without its dangers. "There's risk with the vehicle in its very early stages of use," Logsdon explained. "Everything from it not working well to having the mission aborted to having it blow up."
But SpaceX and the rest of the private space industry are counting on a successful moon tour to propel the whole industry. "Flying a private passenger around the moon is significant as it will expand space access and democratize space for all," Stallmer said.
Economics aside, Maezawa's trip could be a meaningful milestone for the human race. At present just six people, all professional astronauts, live off-planet—and all aboard the International Space Station. "Having someone new get beyond Earth orbit would be remarkable, if indeed turns out to be feasible," Logsdon said.
For Maezawa and his fellow travelers, the first-ever private tour of the moon would be unforgettable. If SpaceX's new rocket works and doesn't explode on launch, Maezawa and the artists would "get a hell of a view of the moon and Earth," according to Logsdon.
“This is my lifelong dream,” Maezawa said.