LOS ANGELES — SpaceX revealed Monday that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be its first space tourist.
Maezawa has chartered a flight aboard the company’s Big Falcon Rocket, which is still being developed, for a slingshot trip around the Moon as soon as 2023. He’s planning to take six to eight artists with him on the mission free of charge.
“I want to share this experience and things with as many people as possible,” Maezawa told a news conference. “So, I choose to go to the Moon with artists.”
The trip will take four or five days, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at the event.
SpaceX made the announcement from its headquarters in Hawthorne, California — not far from where the Emmy awards were being handed out in Los Angeles on Monday evening.
Maezawa is a rock musician, online fashion mogul and, more recently, a high-rolling art collector. A video presentation about him said he believes art can help usher in world peace.
He wondered on stage what John Lennon, Coco Chanel, Michael Jackson or Andy Warhol would have created had they seen the Moon up close.
Maezawa, whose net worth is estimated at $2.9 billion by Forbes, plans to work with the SpaceX team to select his fellow passengers.
“If you hear from me, please say yes,” the Japanese tycoon pleaded. He also encouraged Musk to join the mission.
“As far as me going, I’m not sure,” Musk responded. “Maybe we’ll both be on it.”
Future announcements about the project, which Maezawa is calling “#dearMoon,” will be posted on a website and social media accounts under the same name.
The Japanese billionaire has made a down payment for the mission, but the financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“He puts his money where his mouth is,” Musk said, describing the amount as “non-trivial.”
Maezawa made his fortune by building up Start Today, an e-commerce business that includes a popular online clothing site in Japan. He drew attention last year with the purchase of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for $110.5 million.
Ambitious time frame
Maezawa will fly on the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, a new spaceship system that SpaceX is building. It consists of a massive rocket booster that promises to out-power any that has ever been built and a towering spacecraft, nicknamed BFS for Big Falcon Spaceship, that will vault out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a conference outside Washington earlier Monday that she hoped the spaceship would be making short test flights next year.
Shotwell also said the full rocket could reach orbit for the first time in 2020 and possibly deliver cargo to the Moon or Mars in 2022.
“I know that sounds crazy, and we don’t usually meet our time lines, but I wanted you to know at least order of magnitude, that’s what we’re thinking,” Shotwell said. “And it sounds crazy but everything we’ve ever done has sounded crazy to people, both people that love us and people that don’t like us so much.”
Musk cautioned at the news conference that SpaceX is not certain about the 2023 timing for the moon tourism mission.
He said SpaceX has updated the design for the BFR rocket for the third time in three years. He showed off images of the hardware under construction and a test fire of the vehicle’s massive Raptor engine.
The latest blueprints mark the final major redesign of the rocket, whose development is expected to cost roughly $5 billion, according to Musk.
Asked why the company made further changes, Musk said he “did not like the aesthetics” of the previous version. The new design, he added, “might be better,” but “it’s slightly riskier technically.”
Space station mission next year
SpaceX has launched more than 60 missions to deliver cargo or satellites into orbit over the past eight years — all of them without humans on board.
The tourism announcement comes as the company is racing to meet a tight deadline to start flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station aboard its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The United States hasn’t had the ability to put humans in orbit since the Space Shuttle era ended in 2011. Since then, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station.
Shotwell said Monday that SpaceX is planning to conduct a test flight of a version of the Dragon capsule that can carry astronauts before the end of the year. It aims to launch its first crewed mission to the space station in the second quarter of 2019.
When will ‘everyday people’ get to visit space?
SpaceX has not talked much about putting private citizens in space since February 2017. That’s when the company announced it would send two paying customers on a trip around the Moon in 2018 aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket, which became the most powerful operational rocket in the world after its maiden voyage earlier this year.
Musk later reversed course, saying the company no longer has plans to certify the Falcon Heavy for human spaceflight.
SpaceX has said it views space tourism as “an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space.”
Two of Musk’s fellow billionaires — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson — also want to make a business out of space tourism.
Their ventures plan to conduct short suborbital trips during which passengers can briefly experience weightlessness and an expansive view of Earth.
But it’s not clear when space tourism might become available for “everyday people.”
Branson’s Virgin Galactic has sold tickets for about $250,000, which is more than the median home price in the United States. Bezos’ Blue Origin has been tight-lipped about the price of its tickets, but Reuters reported in July that they could cost in the $200,000 range. Blue Origin denied the report to CNN, saying ticket prices had not yet been set.